• 07/21/2014
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Guide: The Open Compute Project and Your Data Center

Facebook's Open Compute Project has been developing designs and concepts for servers, switches, and other data center technologies. But how and when will those designs migrate to the typical enterprise?

You just may be able to trace the open hardware concept back to 1911, when Henry Ford led a standardization effort that brought about the Automobile Manufacturers Association, which allowed license-free sharing of patents among automakers.

That doesn't mean the big automakers liked each other and didn't engage in a bit of back stabbing. However, the patent-sharing agreement helped them all by contributing to the eventual commonality in function, safety elements, and size that marked the growth of the auto industry. Think of basics such as the use of four tire-equipped wheels and the accelerator on the right.

In a way, the Open Compute Project seeks to provide the same type of baselines and sharing within the data center sector. Founded by Facebook in 2011, Open Compute probably sums itself up best in its mission statement:

"The Open Compute Project Foundation is a rapidly growing community of engineers around the world whose mission is to design and enable the delivery of the most efficient server, storage and data center hardware designs for scalable computing. We believe that openly sharing ideas, specifications and other intellectual property is the key to maximizing innovation and reducing operational complexity in the scalable computing space."

Other companies on the OCP board include Microsoft, Intel, Rackspace, Arista Networks, and Goldman Sachs. The group's project teams work in areas such as networking technology, server design, network management, storage, data center, and open rack.

Read the resources below for more specifics on what the OCP has been up to since its formation:

  • Facebook Unveils Open TOR Switch. Facebook last month said it has built its own top-of-rack switch based on work by the OCP networking switch team.

  • Open Compute Project Considers Switch Specs. The focus expanded from open server designs to network switches with work on an open, operating-system agnostic switch, fueled by contributions from Broadcom, Intel, Mellanox, and Cumulus Networks.

  • Open Compute's Trickle-Down Tech. Blogger Howard Marks points out that while Open Compute Project was launched in driven by the owners of and suppliers to giant data centers -- starting with Facebook and big service providers -- it stands to hurt traditional server companies. Plus it could be a long time before the project's technologies find their way into more typical data centers.

  • Open-Source Cloud Hardware Grows Up Fast. Writer Charles Babcock updated OCP's activity a few months ago, noting that it has released designs for new motherboards and cloud servers, and restructured its licensing along the lines of the Apache Software Foundation model.

  • Open Compute: Boutique Hardware In A Populist Wrapper. Not everyone is on board with the idea of an open compute initiative. Blogger Andrew Conry Murray raised some questions about the need for the Open Compute Project at a time when there is plenty of innovation in the x86 hardware environment.

  • Facebook-Led Open Compute Project Plans The Future Of The Data Center. How has OCP evolved since it set out its early goals? Take a look back at what it planned back in 2011, as shown in this early slide show.

Figure 1:
Facebook's Wedge top-of-rack switch design
Facebook's Wedge top-of-rack switch design

Have you explored any of the technologies that are evolving through the Open Compute Project? We'd love to hear your thoughts on how those technologies might or might not fit in your data center.


Cars and data centers

Jim, I like your analogy here of the auto industry compared to data center technology -- it makes the idea of open compute a lot easier to digest. I've been trying to come up with a parallel car part for Facebook Wedge, but I'm not sure a precise one exists -- the carburetor, fuel pump, passenger seats, wheels? What does everyone think?

Re: Cars and data centers

Maybe the transmission system?

Re: Cars and data centers

The transmission system seems like a good fit -- depending on the terrain at hand, transmission systems modify the drive shaft's relationship to the engine. In the same way, a switch needs to take into account the terrain in which it is operating.

Re: Cars and data centers

Yes, the transmission is perfect! I'm not sure how I missed that. Good call, Marcia :)

Re: Cars and data centers

I like the transmission analogy. Unlike the steering wheel, lighting system, stopping requirements and maximum body width, the transmission doesn't have to be standardized, but its design can be commonly accepted (just as not everyone has to go to the Wedge switch unless they want to). As with different types of transmissions (I learned to drive on a rather ancient Saab that not only used a manual clutch but had an unheard of five-speed shifter on the column) network designers still have switch options, and in the long-run only care that everything works together well for their organization.

Yes, I ground the heck out of those Saab gears.


Re: Cars and data centers

Jim, good point that although there is common design, that doesn't mean a total lack of choice. Customers and manufacturers would still have options, but they would have limits.

When I learned to drive, my parents had a big Ford Econoline van with the shfter on the floor, like a truck. That was pretty interesting -- I still feel bad for my poor Dad!