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Why Facebook Wedge Is Revolutionary

Facebook's Open Compute Project (OCP) switch, code-named Wedge, likely won't displace entrenched networking vendors like Cisco. But here's why it will be revolutionary: It addresses the need for application-specific networking.

Wedge uses commodity hardware in the form of a microserver plus an open-source operating system code-named FBOSS. Wedge and FBOSS  give networking teams the flexibility to create custom switching platforms for specific uses, from both the hardware and software aspects. For example, if a rack only needs 24 ports for connected servers, you can use the modular hardware to build that configuration. If the operating system needs modifications to support advanced features like monitoring or custom software, FBOSS is more than capable of being extended with the proper development team.

As a platform, Wedge -- which Facebook unveiled last month -- is an important step forward for commodity switching hardware (commonly called "white box"). It shows that hardware doesn't need to come from an established networking hardware vendor to be useful in the datacenter.

While Wedge does have long-reaching implications for application networking in the datacenter, the idea that it could displace the big networking players is a bit of a stretch. Wedge isn't designed to supplant existing chassis-based units or even core switching functionality like that found in the Nexus 7000 platform. Instead, Wedge is designed to give Facebook more control of the platform at the top-of-rack (ToR) level. While ToR switches do take up a large amount of real estate in the datacenter, it will take a more coordinated effort to displace incumbent vendors.

Wedge is a modular platform that gives Facebook two important features that aren't found in traditional hardware. The first is the modular server-style architecture. Facebook touts the ability to swap in any type of server control module and retain the feature set of the switch. This is a huge advantage for Facebook, which may buy thousands of control units at once, but less important for enterprises that don't normally buy at that scale.

The second feature of Wedge that Facebook relies upon is the monitoring capability afforded by a Linux-based operating system. Rather than attempting to modify existing vendor software code to work with Facebook's extensive monitoring system, it was much easier to write a switch OS that was compatible and make it control OCP hardware. With FBOSS, Facebook can monitor the network hardware at a deep level to keep its systems running at peak performance at all times.

Shops that are looking at extensive modifications to current vendor switch products are going to benefit the most from Wedge and FBOSS. Their teams are already set up to support the modifications done to bring vendor hardware up to their specifications. With FBOSS, those customizations will be in the OS itself, not added on to work around issues. That means support will largely be an in-house offering.

Customers not looking for the deep application-specific capabilities of FBOSS can still benefit from Wedge in very unique cases. For instance, in situations where a networking appliance is needed to monitor the flow of traffic at the top-of-rack or where data must be manipulated before being passed on, FBOSS and Wedge would make a great fit.

The possibility also exists for application vendors to use Wedge and FBOSS to their advantage. Where previously a server appliance was used to create network collectors and controllers, Wedge can now take its place. A vendor need only take the OCP reference platform and reuse it with proprietary extensions on top of FBOSS. This gives the appliance the power of a server with the modularity and extensibility of a network switch. With the ability to modify the operating system to whatever needs have to be met, a Wedge network appliance could be customized to suit any customer need.

Wedge and FBOSS on their own are not going to change the networking world. They are just OCP reference ideas that ingenious developers and engineers can build upon to transform the network from a passive transport to an active participant in the application ecosystem. Wedge is a bold step in positioning white-box switching in the new application economy.