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Facebook networking chief: No more secret ASIC commands

Joab Jackson | Oct. 7, 2013
Today’s switches, routers, and other network equipment stymies Facebook from making the most efficient use of its network and the Internet, says the company’s head of network operations.

Facebook's head of network operations has great expectations for software defined networking (SDN), though he may not be relying on commercial hardware vendors to bring SDN to the social networking giant's own infrastructure.

"SDN is the way things are going to be. It is not a fad. This will be the way the networks will be built going forward," said Najam Ahmad, director of technical operations at Facebook, who oversees Facebook's production and corporate network. Prior to joining Facebook, Ahmad worked as general manager of global networking services at Microsoft.

Ahmad was part of a panel about SDN at the New York Interop New York conference, held this week. He spoke with the IDG News Service afterward.

SDN has generated a lot of discussion at this year's Interop. Many wondered if it is just this year's buzz phrase, or as others believe, the future of networking.

For Ahmad, SDN solves an important problem -- making Facebook's network as flexible as the rest of its IT stack. "We want to deploy, manage, monitor and fix the network using software," Ahmad said.

Today's switches, routers and other network equipment stymies Facebook from making the most efficient use of its network and the Internet, he said. The company needs to reduce its network latency as much as possible, simply in order to remain responsive to its billion users scattered around the globe.

Admittedly, Facebook doesn't manage its network with typical network operation center (NOC)-styled operations, in which network administrators monitor screens for alerts and then fix problems as they arise.

Instead, the company aggressively automates network management as much as possible, by writing scripts that can anticipate and mitigate issues before they come up, as well as to maximize network performance.

Facebook has been limited, however, by its networking equipment. "With traditional networking, you buy a box. You get command line interface, and protocols, but that is all you get," Ahmad said.

Ahmad has felt frustrated, for instance, when finding a certain issue in some networking gear could only be addressed by the vendor dialing directly into the equipment itself and issuing secret commands to an ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit), commands not available to customers through the standard command line interface (CLI).

"We can't manage our environment like that," Ahmad said. "We want to write against the hardware directly."

Today, the only way you can get changes in products is to convince the vendor to make the changes or appeal to a standards body, Ahmad said.

Being a rather large company, Facebook does have some influence with hardware manufacturers in terms of what features to add, or changes to make. But this process is too slow and cumbersome for company's liking.


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