SDN Focus: Interview with John Kenevey, Facebook

26 Jun 2014

Facebook has credited its focus on designing and developing its own data centre infrastructure – including playing a pioneering role in terms of Open Compute – with saving the social network US$1.2bn in IT costs in the past three to four years.

Facebook program manager John Kenevey spoke to about the social network’s work with the Open Network Foundation (ONF) to encourage software defined network (SDN) standards, as well as Facebook’s focus on the Open Compute Project to bring open-source thinking to hardware creation.

Kenevey will be speaking in Dublin on Monday at the Open Tech Ireland gathering on SDN technology.

In addition to ONF and IDA Ireland, Open Tech Ireland: An SDN Gathering is being presented in co-operation with the Irish Software Association, Intune Networks, KEMP Technologies, and Sanctum Networks. The symposium is designed to be a gathering of international SDN luminaries, Irish companies already on the leading edge of SDN, employees of multinational companies with facilities in Ireland, and energetic entrepreneurs and investors.

“The ONF and Open Compute are trying to change the landscape of the data-centre space,” Kenevey said.

“There are many challenges ahead but this is going to transform the industry.”

Facebook started the Open Compute Project with the goal of building one of the most efficient computing infrastructures at the lowest possible cost.

Keveney, Facebook

John Kenevey, program manager at Facebook

Facebook decided to honour its hacker roots by custom designing and building its software, servers and data centres from the ground up and share the technologies as they evolve.

With more than 1.2bn users, Facebook is the one of the busiest sites on the internet, attracting more than 1trn page views per month, hosting 300m new photos every day, supporting platform services for more than 1m websites and 550,000 applications on the Facebook Connect platform.

So far, the results of the Open Compute project speak for themselves – by stripping out branded servers and building them to their own spec, Facebook’s data centres are 38pc more efficient and 24pc less expensive to build.

“Among the standards we’ve come up with so far is Open Rack. There were too many different styles of racks for servers and we had to choose between 10 different configurations.”

The company worked with Taiwanese equipment maker Gigabyte to design a rack to Facebook’s own specifications.

As Kenevey sees it, the IT equipment industry is itself seeking opportunities to change.

The SDN movement led by ONF is in itself a response to the networking industry not moving fast enough to automate the roll out of network infrastructure in the same way servers and other vital aspects of IT infrastructure have become automated and virtualised.

“Ninety per cent of technology in Facebook’s portfolio is Facebook-specified,” Kenevey said.

The key battle was getting incumbent technology giants to come on board and contribute to the Facebook supply chain and ecosystem.

“What we’ve seen to date is a really significant amount of contribution from suppliers – not only big players like Intel, which contributed in terms of silicon and connectors – but we’re also seeing massive contributions from small suppliers who are looking for opportunities to change the market dynamic.”

Championing change

Kenevey said it is critical for change to occur, particularly in terms of initiatives such as SDN rollouts and endeavours such as Facebook’s Open Compute – it starts with internal champions.

For example, Linux became an established technology platform when it found champions among IT engineers in the finance sector who took it upon themselves to validate Linux code.

Among the board of directors of the ONF championing change within their organisations are Facebook’s director of technical operations Najam Ahmad and Google senior vice-president and Google fellow Urs Hölzle.

“For change to occur you need to see internal champions who are willing to push the envelope. In terms of Open Compute, we’d be the champion,” Kenevey said.

“It’s not without its challenges and there are lessons to be learned. But it needs to have engineering champions who are willing to take risks and push it over the finish line.”

Rather than resist what is clearly a revolution among CIOs and IT leaders, the OEMs themselves are beginning to pay attention.

“They realise that if they don’t get on board, the challenge to catch up will become even more substantial for them,” Kenevey said.

“This is open-source thinking and it is adding a greater voice to the customer and that challenges the incumbents to get moving.”

The challenge for OEMs is dealing with companies that want to build data centres from scratch in three to six months to their own design and product spec rather than that of the OEM’s.

“The OEMs are getting signals from their customer base, where people are pushing the envelope and they are becoming more fluid and willing to change the supply chain.”

Kenevey says Facebook’s focus on Open Compute and ultimate cost efficiencies in IT is serving the social network well.

“We’ve saved US$1.2bn over the past three to four years, which is really significant, not only through Open Compute but across software and hardware in general. We’ve focused on enabling automation within a hardware design and that means evolving the supply chain.”

John Kenevey will be speaking at Ireland’s first SDN symposium to explore SDN’s potential within the country. The event takes place at 9am on Monday, 30 June, at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years