Facebook’s “6-Pack” Could Be The Muscle Behind Energy Efficiency

Facebook’s open-source modular switch platform could provide a more energy efficient and cleaner solution for the Internet.
Published: Tue 17 Feb 2015

Facebook’s revolutionary hardware, an “open-source modular switch platform,” could possibly enable a cheaper, cleaner, faster and more reliable Internet experience. Facebook has named the project “6-pack”.

Facebook has transformed the “boring” switch into something a lot more sexy, as well as making it almost as intelligent as the computer it serves.

Switch increases efficiency

The new intelligence will be highly useful since it allows computers to focus on their core functions instead of spending energy directing traffic. This makes the entire network more robust and efficient because the switches can automatically and intelligently react to changes on the network – a large spike in traffic for instance – rather than relying on computers to do so.

Facebook’s interest in creating its own commercial switch is because these are often closed-source. In other words, the companies that build them own the software that runs them. This obviously reduces Facebook’s ability to customise and control their users’ behaviour. For this reason, Facebook has opted for an open-source model instead.

Facebook aren’t the only (or even the first) internet company to build their own hardware. Google has been doing so right from the start in the 1990s, as has Amazon.

As a result both Google and Amazon have hundreds of patents on the custom designed hardware they use in their massive server farms. But Facebook has taken a different route –the company shares its innovations. For instance, in 2011 Facebook founded the Open Compute Project, its open source hardware and data center design initiative, with the aim of sharing its knowledge about running huge data centres with other companies and thereby “maximizing innovation and reducing operational complexity in the scalable computing space.”

Facebook is planning to make the 6-pack design open to the public through the Open Compute Project. Data centre operators and vendors will be able to use the design or modify it to build their own switches and network fabrics.

Facebook knows that by sharing the information with other engineers it is more likely to improve its designs faster.

Facebook has not yet replaced all the network gear in its data centres with the new systems.

The company usually tests new pieces of infrastructure by running some production traffic on them in multiple regions before full-blown implementation.

Small efficiencies have major implications

Facebook wants data centres that are cheaper to run because it has so many servers that even a 1% saving can amount to millions of dollars. For instance, the data centre it uses to test these innovations already uses 38% less energy than its other facilities.

The Open Compute Project can only be good for the whole planet in the long run.

Estimates show that the Internet already consumes over 2% of the world’s electricity. This could be closer to 10% within a few decades. When you’re dealing with tens of billions of switches and computers, efficiencies, however small, can have huge implications.

Facebook’s focus on energy efficiency is nothing really new. Facebook has been pretty proactive about this for several years, after bearing the brunt of a Greenpeace campaign unhappy with its heavy dependence on coal-generated electricity.

Since then, Facebook has made a 100% renewable energy pledge to power its data centres—along with Amazon, Apple, Box, Google, Rackspace and Salesforce. Its Prineville, Oregon, facility is already said to be one of the most efficient in the world.