Facebook has produced yet another computer network innovation that will once again floor the $41 billion network tech industry.
Facebook is making it possible for people to create and share new immersive experiences using video and VR, and by some estimates video will make up 75 percent of the world’s mobile data traffic by 2020.
With the onset of these new services, we need to make sure our global infrastructure is designed to handle richer content at faster speeds. To meet these current requirements and any future bandwidth demands.
The new innovation is called Backpack and it is a second-generation computer switch, the successor to the one it released last year called the 6-Pack that directly challenged tech made by market leader Cisco (and others, like Juniper). The difference is, the Backpack is way, way faster.
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The 6-Pack was a 40G switch, which means it could stream 40G worth a data around a data center network. The Backpack is an 100G optical switch, which means it’s 2.5 times faster, and using fiber optics to move data around instead of the traditional and more limited copper wires.
The Backpack is also a companion to the new switch Facebook announced last spring, called Wedge 100. The Wedge 100 is what’s known as a “top of rack” switch, that connects a computer rack of servers to the network. The Backpack then connects all the Wedge 100 switches together. In network jargon this is known as a “network fabric.”
Going on sale in 2017
There are two key thing about this new switch. Facebook is turning it over to its game-changing Open Compute Project, which has gained cult-like status in the few years since Facebook launched it.
OCP creates open source hardware, where engineers can freely take hardware designs and work on them together.
OCP offers designs on racks, servers, storage drives and other hardware. Contract manufactures stand by to build them. OCP has even inspired other internet players to build their own hardware completely from scratch, such as LinkedIn.
In the case of Facebook’s switches, Facebook went the extra step of arranging for its contract manufacturer, Accton, to mass produce the devices so anyone can buy them.
And Facebook also open sources the software to run the switch, and worked with other network startups to get their software to work on its switches.
In order to create Backpack, Facebook had to work with chip makers and optical materials vendors to do what’s never been done before, create special chips and special optical fiber that brings the cost of such switches down.
The optical switches on the market today are not typically used in the data center to connect servers together. They are typically used in the “Backplane,” the part of a network that stretches between data centers or across cities.
And because they’ve been targeted for metro-scale networks and beyond, such switches tend to use a lot of power, throw off a lot of heat, and are very expensive.
Facebook helped design a switch that uses less power and generates less heat, can operate at around 55-degree Celsius, Baldonado says, which has never been done before. Folks in the network industry have told us Facebook’s 100G work is “mind blowing.”
Facebook is leading this charge into faster, cheaper, mind-blowing networks and data centers because one day we will all be using the social network to hang out in virtual reality, in addition to live-streaming more video.