Plexxi wants to put data center networks on a high fiber diet

Networking is the current big bottleneck in scale-out and virtualized data centers. It’s also the hottest hardware area around with startups such as Embrane, Nicira, BigSwitch, Vello Systems and more creating fabrics, controllers and alternatives to the current networking regimes in place. Now we can add Plexxi to that list.

Plexxi has been around since 2010 and has raised $28 million from North Bridge Venture Partners, Matrix Partners and Lightspeed Venture Partners in that time to build some secret switch that uses fiber optics instead of the current Ethernet connections. In a conversation last week, Plexxi’s Mat Mathews, VP of product management, explained (to a certain extent) what the stealthy company has been up to and how it views the worlds of software-defined networks, massively scalable data centers and next-generation networks.

Like many, Plexxi is addressing the networking market, specifically the idea that the next generation of networking has to have a flat architecture and adapt to the needs of applications on demand. However, unlike the companies that view the problem as one requiring OpenFlow or a software-defined network that can work on commodity networking gear, Plexxi wants to sell a smarter box. In this way it’s closer to the Ciscos and Junipers of the world.

Plexxi is selling a top-of-rack switch that contains both fabric-like management software as well as a fiber-optics component that can transmit packets faster than the current 10 GigE ports. For those who follow the fiber world, such a statement may seem a bit insane. Fiber is not cheap and the biggest reason it’s not used in data centers is because it can cost ten to 100 times more than current Ethernet technologies.

But Matthews says that Plexxi has made fiber optics cost-equivalent to 10 Gigabit Ethernet by doing away with high-cost considerations such as transmitting wavelengths over long distances or ensuring the fiber lasts for decades as opposed to a few years. Basically, if a telecommunications network’s undersea fiber transport requires Chanel, Plexxi wants to deliver data-center optics at H&M prices. And that is the technological breakthrough for Plexxi.

But it’s also trying to build a truly flat network by offering software that takes advantage of the fiber to deliver networking capacity to applications on demand. Each Plexxi switch talks to another Plexxi switch and there are no hierarchies. The switch has the fiber optics, controller software and the fabric. Mathews didn’t want to get into too much detail on the switch design and the software, as the product won’t be generally available until next year, so it’s all a bit hazy and hopeful for now.

Still, as someone who talks to a lot of vendors in the networking world, Plexxi does have something compelling. Fiber in the data center could deliver speed and capacity that is unrivaled, and while it’s unclear how it would work with equipment or software from other vendors, it’s worth waiting to see what it can deliver.