light speed networking

How Google and Facebook Will Make the Leap to Lightspeed

by CADE METZ,  |  published on January 16, 2013

One early morning in 2011, somewhere behind the curtain at the world’s most popular social network, a Facebook engineer pressed a single button and brought down the entire operation.

This unnamed engineer didn’t necessarily make a mistake. He just decided to run the kind of software task the social networking giant runs all the time. He ran a “Hadoop job,” a way of analyzing data. The trouble is that Facebook analyzes data generated by hundreds of millions of people. This data is stored across thousands of machines inside the company’s data centers, and when you analyze it, all those servers must talk to each other.

According to Facebook man Donn Lee — who recalled the incident at a conference last spring — that one Hadoop job flooded the company’s computer network with so much traffic, the rest of the operation nearly ground to a halt. “I remember this morning very well,” Lee said. “It brought down Facebook — or severely crippled it.”

Lee — then a Facebook network engineer — was trying to show how much has changed with the computer networks that power the web’s biggest operations. In the past, most network traffic streamed back and forth between a server and the people out there on the internet trying to visit a webpage. But nowadays — with the rise of increasingly large and complex operations like Facebook, Google, and Amazon — there’s far more traffic bouncing around inside the data center, from server to server, and the traditional networking gear used by these net giants wasn’t meant to handle it all.

As a result, networks are changing. Companies like Facebook and Google are moving to higher-speed networking hardware, and they’re revamping the topology of their networks to accommodate the extra traffic moving between servers. But these improvements are only so valuable. Networking gurus like Donn Lee are also looking toward a new breed of networking gear inside the data center — gear that sends data as beams of light.

Yes, some internet data already travels as light. This is called optical networking. Standard electrical signals are converted to photons and then sent racing down lines of glass fiber. But typically, this happens over connections that move information between data centers, and if it does happen inside the data center, it happens sparingly. The next step is to rebuild data center networks with an eye toward optics, pairing traditional electrical networking switches with optical switches that can significantly speed the transfer of data from server to server.

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