Can Open Compute change network switching?

Commodity doesn't drive innovation.

Much is being made of Facebook's Open Compute Project's announcement that they were soliciting input for an open source top-of-rack switch. Soliciting input from the industry and getting sign-off from a few major players to start, the project looks to change the dedicated appliance model currently found in datacenter switching.

The goal is to build a standardized switch that will allow the consumer to load the operating system and configuration of their own choice, and not be locked into the proprietary OS infrastructure currently found in the network switching market. The purported reason is to allow for the development of networks that will easily scale to meet the needs of large datacenter operators at a price point significantly lower than the per port cot of the cutting edge switching vendors currently in the market.

The idea of replicating the bare metal server concept with the bare metal network switch is an appealing one. Need more capacity or a new project specific configuration? Pull a blank out of stock and drop it in to the rack that needs the expansion capability, then image the entire rack, servers, and switch to address the specific project or need.

On one hand, you would think that network switch vendors would find this prospect an anathema; they are selling specific capabilities and capacities, and charging their customers for the advantages that they claim over their competitors. On the other hand, it would allow a certain level of networking switching to become completely commoditized, and that's where the real issue lies.

There's no real problem with a commodity level network switch. Many, if not the majority of switches are installed to handle the mundane tasks of network operation. Vendors that cover a broad range of switching capabilities already offer relatively inexpensive switches that perform at this level. A standardized level of capability and hardware would simplify this market immensely, both for the vendor and consumer.

But the high-end is where this model breaks down. Custom switching fabrics matched with highly optimized operating systems and management tools are what separate this level of switch from a potential commodity switch. In an environment like Facebook or Google, massive standardization across the datacenter takes a certain amount of priority over optimization. For business like these, the advantages of a standardized/commoditized networking infrastructure are huge.

But for companies who are looking for that competitive business advantage over their market segment, a high-performance, highly optimized networking infrastructure can be worth the investment. Taking advantage of the network switch vendor investment in developing the fastest, most capable switching fabric and matched optimized operating system will be the only way to guarantee the best possible performance from your networking infrastructure.

So while the commodity level open standard switch may well be a successful player in the networking market, the cutting edge, high-end switch will still retain its place at the top of the networking rack.