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Jun 30 2014

Facebook Introduces “Wedge” Network Switch

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Once confined to the software sector, the idea of open source is now gaining a foothold in hardware design as well, as more and more big Internet firms and service providers start to build their own, custom-made servers and storage. Social networking behemoth Facebook pushes even farther ahead, into the area of networking equipment.

The company is also one of the more outspoken evangelists of open hardware: after completely redesigning its Oregon data center, Facebook launched the Open Compute Project (OCP) in 2011, an initiative in which it joins forces with Google, Microsoft, Seagate and other big players to develop custom hardware for particularly demanding usage scenarios. OCP engineers began working on the Wedge switch a little over a year ago, with input from Broadcom, Intel, Mellanox and others; the first results were presented this June.

Technically speaking, Wedge is a hybrid rather than a thoroughbred switch. As shown in the diagram above, its modular design comprises both a micro server and a 40 GbE switching ASIC, along with 16 matching network ports, two power supplies, and three fans in a single enclosure with special cooling mechanisms. Wedge is supposed to work as a top-of-rack network switch that offers the power and flexibility of a server and is just as easy to configure and manage. To achieve this, the OCP engineers also developed a new operating system, a Linux derivative called FBOSS that builds on the same "software libraries and systems" that Facebook uses to manage its server fleet. According to chief developers Yuval Bachar and Adam Simpkins, the original idea behind this "was to make our (i.e. Facebook's) network look, feel, and operate more like the OCP servers we've already deployed, both in terms of hardware and software" – a concept that may work equally well in other contexts.

But how exactly does the Wedge design differ from that of regular networking gear? Bachar and Simpkins have the answer readily available: "Traditional network switches often use fixed hardware configurations and non-standard control interfaces, limiting the capabilities of the device and complicating deployments." In other words, switches (especially the high-end variety) are nothing to tamper with, because even small changes in the hard- or software stack might trigger major malfunctions. By contrast, Wedge relies on Facebook's own "Group Hug" specification, which was introduced at the OCP Summit last year and allows for building "vendor-neutral" motherboards with common slots for processors from Intel, AMD, or the entire host of ARM licensees. Adding the server component to the switch means it is now accessible with more or less standardized Linux tools, which in turn simplifies deployment, monitoring, and single-device as well as network management. The FBOSS operating system further adds to this newfound simplicity by incorporating core functions such as "initial turn-up and decommissioning [or] up- and downgrades." An additional software layer "on top of the switch ASIC APIs" is supposed to enable the company's engineers "to treat Wedge like any other service" on its network. Essentially, this means that the control logic is separated (or "disaggregated", in Facebook lingo) from the data switch, and may either be centralized at the main data center(s) or distributed across relevant nodes, thus allowing for better system utilization, more efficient traffic management and faster troubleshooting.

Both Wedge and FBOSS are currently undergoing performance tests. Specifications for OCP networking and micro server hardware are available here and here; Bachar and Simpkins have already pointed out that they plan to submit "the designs for Wedge and central pieces of FBOSS" as contributions to OCP in the near future.

 
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