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Open-Source Cloud Hardware Grows Up Fast

6 Ways SDN Shakes Up The Enterprise
6 Ways SDN Shakes Up The Enterprise

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The Open Compute Project founded by Facebook has made rapid strides in what has been a narrow sphere of influence. The cloud is an x86 world, and, in its first three years, OCP has put out several motherboard and server designs for cloud projects.

The early adopters have been primarily big financial services companies, such as Bank of America, Fidelity Investments, and Goldman Sachs. At the Open Compute Project Summit this week in San Jose, Calif., OCP showed it may be ready to grow beyond one industrial segment into others, such as online gaming and pharmaceuticals, and expand the reach of open-source hardware in other ways.

OCP broadened its approach to licensing, as well. The hardware designs are available under an Apache Software Foundation-style of license, where the licensee may make modifications, sell them, and keep the additions proprietary. It's a "permissive" license, in the parlance of open-source. The adopter may do just about anything with the code without obligation. To encourage contributors, the Open Compute Project Foundation may move to a second model, a GPL-like license, where anyone may modify an Open Compute Project design, but if they sell a product based on it they must contribute their changes back to the community. The GPL governs Linux use. Its giveback clause makes it more restrictive, or "prescriptive," in how for-profit modifications must be handled.

"Soon we will roll out a second, more 'prescriptive' license," wrote Open Compute Project founder Frank Frankovsky in a Jan. 28 blog.

It will require anyone who modifies an OCP design and then sells a product based on it "to contribute the modified version back to the foundation. It's our hope that having multiple licensing options will lead to even more OCP technology contributions," he wrote.

[Cloudscaling's Randy Bias has a specific point of view about what makes a cloud service "open." See When The Open Cloud... Isn't.]

In another sign of maturity, OCP Summit speakers and panelists seemed to leave behind their references to converting thousands of servers and embraced both larger expectations and bigger numbers.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg got the process underway Tuesday by estimating that Facebook's efficient cloud server and datacenter designs had saved the company "more than a billion" dollars over the last three years, compared to traditional datacenters. The savings came from less-expensive manufacturing of its first OCP motherboard server and from its datacenters' reduced electricity use. Facebook saves energy in its design of both equipment and datacenter facilities. The latter have massive air-flow handling and air-cooling techniques that allow ambient air to cool the equipment without air conditioning.

Figure 1:
Facebook's Prineville, Ore., datacenter. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Facebook's Prineville, Ore., datacenter. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

"We've saved the equivalent of the electricity to supply 40,000 homes," said Zuckerberg in an interview with O'Reilly Media CEO Tim O'Reilly. The reduced energy use reflects a Facebook contribution to the environment equivalent to taking 50,000 cars off the road.

Bill Laing, corporate VP of Microsoft's Servers and Cloud unit, came up with some big numbers of his own. Microsoft has invested over $1 billion in cloud datacenters, which contain 1 million servers, he said. At the OCP Summit, Microsoft donated its design of a 12u cloud server that mixes layers of CPU and storage blades.

Cade Metz, a senior editor at Wired, carried the big numbers a step forward as he moderated a panel on the future of open-source hardware in networking. Martin Casado, chief network architect for VMware, said he's watched networking move from highly proprietary, inflexible sets of devices that tie a customer to a vendor, to a field where network switches may be programmed and reprogrammed dynamically throughout the day. "Five years ago, I was a lot more pessimistic about the future of networking," said Casado.

Metz deadpanned, "$1.26 billion later, he's more optimistic" to the laughter of the audience. Casado sold his networking startup Nicira to VMware in 2012 for that amount. He and fellow panelists agreed that Open Compute Project specs will allow an OCP-specified set of switch designs to be produced by a variety of manufacturers and used in software-defined networks.


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