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Will Facebook push Intel chips into SDN and open networking?

Facebook and the Open Compute Project have taken on the quest for open networking and SDN, and Intel is playing a key role.

This was the year that VMware and Cisco constructed fortified battlements in their SDN and network virtualization strategies, aiming to keep open-standards whippersnappers at bay. Fortunately, that hasn't stopped the push toward open networking.

When tech companies fund benches of engineers actively hacking, Intel is more than happy to send teams of engineers with boxes of off-the-shelf silicon.

SDN was first developed by a bunch of network researchers at Berkeley and Stanford, who were frustrated by the lack of networking innovation and set about developing control abstraction using open standards. Fortunately, members of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) have quietly continued along this path even amid the recent major vendor hoopla.

Among ONF's founding members (Deutsche Telekom, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon and Yahoo), Google and Facebook have been particularly busy. Google adopted OpenFlow systemwide in 2012, and Facebook has driven several practical, public projects.

Facebook made significant progress with the Open Compute Project (OCP), though its primary goal of green computing does not necessarily benefit enterprise users. However, Facebook and OpenFlow's parallel efforts in networking, particularly with partner Intel, may yet allow commodity network hardware to make significant inroads in your datacenter and beyond.

Where hackers congregate, Intel is nearby

Hacker culture -- legend at Facebook -- is based on the concept that the world may be improved by deconstructing and rearranging technology components to better serve our needs. Facebook went so far as to say in its S-1 filing with the SEC that "the hacker way" was fundamental to the company's success and the company went about creating an environment in which engineers were encouraged to do just that.

At first Facebook focused on everything in the data center except networking, but soon the company took on network switching, backing the OCP in developing an open source Top of Rack (ToR) switch design. When tech companies fund benches of engineers actively hacking, Intel is more than happy to send teams of engineers with boxes of off-the-shelf silicon.

What first resulted from Intel was the 48 10 Gigabit Ethernet Port Open Network Platform Reference Design, based on the FM6764 application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC), which has been available for a year. But the hacker culture is never satisfied with just one path, and Facebook recently shared three different designs and boot loader software. Common to all of these efforts is openness -- open platforms, open reference designs and open software. Though Broadcom and Mellanox have been at the open networking table, the biggest pile of chips in any commodity silicon game is always Intel's. It has so much on the truck and so much in the pipeline that, as long as the game is open, it often dominates.

After ToR, what's next in open networking switches?

Intel's real opportunity for SDN and open networking is not limited to switching in Facebook data centers. While ToR is high-profile and will help data center customers, it's important to remember the ignored masses managing LANs in network vendor "flyover country." VMware has an early lead to own the data center with NSX for a little while, and Cisco is frantically hammering Insieme/ACI into Nexus boxes and Mobius strips. But OpenFlow's most likely first arrival in your enterprise network may still be in distribution and the general campus LAN. And while early components will have a variety of merchant silicon soldered onto their boards, Intel has a good chance of driving whitebox designs around its chips beyond the data center for the long run with attractive tray-pricing.

Even in this transition, hackers are the key. Hackers love software, and software is what makes commodity programmable ASICs easy to love. It is software that allows users to command hordes of switches, vendors to iterate new features quickly and network management providers to easily snap metrics into dashboards. While a VIP pass for Comic-Con is tempting, the real geek pass this year will be the OCP Summit. You can bet who'll have the biggest vendor booth. Perhaps the attendees won't be in blue makeup, but the rack gear will be sporting blue logos on its bezels.

About the author:
Patrick Hubbard is a head geek and senior technical-product marketing manager at SolarWinds. With 20 years of technical expertise and IT customer perspective, his networking management experience includes work with campus, data center, storage networks, VoIP and virtualization, with a focus on application and service delivery in both Fortune 500 companies and startups in the high tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries. He can be reached at Patrick.Hubbard@solarwinds.com.

This was last published in December 2013

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Will Intel be the chip behind the open networking of the future?
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