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Facebook Wedges Itself into SDN-Like Networking

SDNs can be built using white label Ethernet switches, commodity products that can be bought for a fraction of the cost of today's expensive network infrastructure hardware. That was the early concept. Last year at an event held in Silicon Valley's Computer History Museum, Stu Bailey, founder and CTO of Infoblox, made a short presentation which confirmed this premise (see "SDN: More Than A Game Changer.") A year later Infoblox unveiled LINCX, an open-source, software-defined networking switch that is fully programmable and free to download.

Dedicated hardware is not needed. The software can run on regular servers, as well as on network "white-box" devices that cost as little as $300. This development proves the validity of the concept; but in practice, robust, data-centric servers will run SDN software, and that day is getting close.

Business publications like The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) didn't mention Infoblox's development--which is not surprising--but they did cover Facebook's announcement that it will use a self-designed switch, code-named Wedge, which is being tested in the company's data centers. The WSJ also talked about this announcement as the latest sign of Web giants skipping computing hardware from powerhouse corporate-tech vendors like Cisco. Bloomberg Businessweek saw the shift toward using software to run networks as a shift that poses a challenge to hardware makers.

Facebook is promoting the Open Compute Project (OCP), the objective being to "develop servers and data centers following the model traditionally associated with open source software projects." The networking section of OCP talks about "creating a set of technologies that is disaggregated and fully open, allowing for rapid innovation in the network space," and that is SDN in all but name. Facebook plans to release Wedge to the OCP by the end of the year.

Looking ahead
LINCX is written in Erlang, which is designed for creating systems that are flexible, highly available, and massively scalable. Deep packet inspection and protocol support are fully programmable, which means that switching can be adjusted on the fly to meet changing network requirements. This indicates that in the future, network functionality will be determined by users and managed by the IT department.

The LINCX software was built in one year by a team of six engineers at a cost of around $1 million, so providing it as a free download is commendable. It will allow companies of all shapes and sizes to build and test their own switches and thereby evaluate the potential of this game-changing development.

The last word goes to Stu:

"We created LINCX to showcase how the world changes when network control moves to software and is completely separated from the underlying hardware. .... If we can build LINCX in a year with just six people, we know others will soon be able to create SDN applications that are even more interesting. SDN is an open playing field, and I expect there will be many winners among networking incumbents, as well as among future start-ups that today are only a gleam in the eyes of young engineers."