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From Wedge to 6-Pack: Facebook Continues to Revolutionize Data Center Networking

Julia Shih 0

Most people think of Facebook as a marquee social media giant, but what they may not know, is that Facebook is leading a revolutionary of the data center. Last week, Facebook announced a new open-source modular switch platform called the “6-pack,” designed to be a more flexible, scalable and cost-friendly alternative to today’s networking options.

Facebook has long been transparent about its intentions to redefine data center technologies to make them more flexible to meet their scale, then donating the specs to their Open Compute Project. They started with repurposable server platforms and the unique “Open Rack” design, followed by the announcement last June of their version of a top-of-rack switch named “The Wedge.” The Wedge works as a programmable server with its own operating system (a Facebook-developed version of Linux called FBoss). The separation of the hardware and software components in the switch allowed each piece to become a separate programmable entity, leading to unprecedented flexibility compared to current closed switch architectures.

The development of the 6-pack is based on the Wedge design and is essentially a monster switch made up of six individual Wedge switches set up like building blocks, with each individual switch running independently. According to Facebook’s blog:
The “6-pack” platform is the core of our new fabric, and it uses “Wedge” as its basic building block. It is a full mesh non-blocking two-stage switch that includes 12 independent switching elements. Each independent element can switch 1.28Tbps. We have two configurations: One configuration exposes 16x40GE ports to the front and 640G (16x40GE) to the back, and the other is used for aggregation and exposes all 1.28T to the back. Each element runs its own operating system on the local server and is completely independent, from the switching aspects to the low-level board control and cooling system. This means we can modify any part of the system with no system-level impact, software or hardware. We created a unique dual backplane solution that enabled us to create a non-blocking topology.

Facebook's 6-pack open hardware modular switch(Photo Credit: Facebook)

Facebook plans to contribute the entire design to the Open Compute Project, allowing the community to further utilize the designs to build out their own solutions.

The 6-pack seems like an exciting disruptive entry into the realm of networking, but what’s good for Facebook, may not necessarily work for other enterprises. Will companies willingly adopt the design, or take a wait and see approach? The software-defined networking movement definitely seems to be gaining traction, and it will be interesting to see what “traditional networking architecture” for the data center will look like three years from now.

How about you…would an open, modular switching architecture like the 6-pack be something you would be willing to deploy in your data center today?