Inside Facebook's Fantastic Plan To Dominate Cisco's $23 Billion Market

Facebook Open Compute Project Najam AhmadFacebook Director, Technical Operations Najam Ahmad

Hands down, one of the most important tech projects Facebook has ever created is the Open Compute Project (OCP).

Business Insider recently spoke with two of Facebook’s OCP leaders to get the skinny on their latest, ambitious plan.

To recap: OCP launched two years ago to create “open source” data centre hardware. That means hardware vendors like HP, Dell and Cisco don’t control the product designs. Instead, customers like Facebook and Goldman Sachs do.

OCP’s designs call for fewer materials and minimal cost, but require faster performance than what vendors typically offer.

More importantly, OCP gives the designs away to everyone for free. Any enterprise can take them, modify them, and send them out to contract manufacturers, who are standing by to build them.

The project has also grown far beyond Facebook, although Facebook VP of Supply Chain Operations Frank Frankovsky is still its leader. The OCP board also includes executives from Intel, Rackspace, Arista Networks, and Goldman Sachs.

Earlier this month, OCP announced plans to push into the $23 billion Ethernet switch market, a project led by Facebook Director of Technical Operations Najam Ahmad.

Its goal is to create an “open source” network switch. A network switch connects the Ethernet cables within a building or across a campus. It also performs lots of other functions, from security to making the network run faster.

OCP’s project could compete with switches from Cisco, HP and Dell. Alternatively, these vendors could join the group and participate. Dell and HP, for example, have been involved in the server project.

Cisco, however, owns ~60% of the network switch market and it’s unclear, so far, if Cisco will play nice or play dirty with OCP. 

OCP is not the only group working on such things. A group called the Open Network Foundation (ONF) is creating standards, or blueprints, for software-defined networking gear. There’s also another group called OpenDaylight, led by Cisco and IBM, working on open source SDN software.

Here’s what Ahmad and Frankovsky told us about OCP’s plans in a lightly edited transcript:

Frank Frankovsky FacebookFacebook open source hardware guru Frank Frankovsky

Business Insider: OCP has moved from servers to storage to motherboards and other hardware equipment. Why has it grown so much?

Frank Frankovsky: Over the last two years we’ve seen a ton of progress made around the server hardware and the storage hardware and the data centres. People are making really cool and meaningful technology contributions with a lot of derivative work. Some of those are interesting things that no one at Facebook ever thought about.

When you give one thing to the community, you tend to get 10 things back. And you just don’t know what those 10 things are.

BI: What’s the goal for your network project and how is it different from what other groups are doing?

Najam Ahmad: ONF actually reached out to OCP and asked us if we can tackle this.

Today, if you wanted to buy a switch, it’s a package that has hundreds of applications and features. OCP will create a [design for] a [switch] box that when it boots up, it looks for an operating system of your choice. We’re trying to separate the hardware and the software and give you choices.

BI: Wow, that’s ambitious. A box that will work with all SDN software. Is Cisco participating? This is Cisco’s big fear, that a commodity box will come along and hurt their business.

Ahmad: We had our first engineering summit for OCP at MIT [two weeks ago] and we held a whole day workshop on networking. Cisco was at that meeting. They definitely know what’s going on and they are participating in the conversations.

So it’s either a threat or an opportunity on how they respond from here. They are open to submit proposals and [see] if the user community selects them.

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