Facebook's open-source data-center project gains strength

Facebook's Open Compute Project has new server designs and members

Facebook's year-old project to develop open-source hardware designs with the aim to build efficient data centers gained momentum on Wednesday, with some top technology companies joining the effort and introducing server designs.

The company provided details about implementations of the open hardware designs and also announced new members of the Open Compute Project, including Hewlett-Packard, Advanced Micro Devices, Fidelity, Quanta, Tencent, Salesforce.com, VMware, Canonical and Supermicro. HP and Dell have contributed new server and storage designs that fit into OCP's Open Rack specification, which covers hardware, such as motherboards and power components, that goes inside a server chassis.

The Open Compute Project was announced by Facebook in April last year and revolves around opening up hardware specifications and designs to create power-efficient and economical data centers. The project shares the ethos of the open-source software movement, with a community working together to share, tweak and update hardware designs with the aim of improving products.

The project also aims to develop standards around which companies get better control of hardware instead of being locked into particular vendors. One focus area is cloud computing, where servers are added as demand scales up for Web-based services.

"We've started to see a convergence of voices among the consumers of this technology around where we think the industry would benefit from standardization and where we think the opportunities for innovation are," said Frank Frankovsky, founding board member of the Open Compute Project, in a blog entry.

Frankovsky wrote that some new hardware designs included Facebook's "vanity-free" storage server and motherboard designs contributed by chip makers AMD and Intel. AMD's motherboard is about 16-inches by 16.5-inches (40.6 centimeters by 41.9 centimeters), and is for high-performance computing and general purpose installations such as cloud deployments. On the software side, VMware will certify its vSphere virtualization platform to run on hardware based on the OpenRack specification.

If the Facebook design becomes a de-facto industry standard for cloud and Web 2.0 data centers, it could make the deployment and management of systems easier over time, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

"The Facebook standard seems to be a data-center centric effort where you are looking to establish a system-design standard that can populate a data center with hundreds of thousands of servers," King said.

OCP started as a collaboration project when Facebook engineers designed hardware for the company's Prineville, Oregon, data center. Facebook ultimately opened up the hardware designs, including motherboards, power supply, server chassis, server rack and battery cabinets. At the time, Facebook said the Prineville data center used 38 percent less energy than Facebook's other data centers, while costing 24 percent less.

A lot of companies such as Google and Amazon also have their servers custom-made instead of buying off-the-shelf servers. The custom-built servers reduce financial overhead and strain on IT staff deploying and managing thousands of servers, King said.

The OCP standards body should also benefit the participating companies, King said. By introducing new server designs based on Open Rack, HP and Dell now have the opportunity to design and meet the server specifications of potentially large customers like Google that would otherwise get their servers third-party contract manufacturers like Quanta.

AMD targeted financial services firms with its new motherboard designs, said Vlad Rozanovich, AMD vice president of commercial business for the Americas. Financial services companies usually deploy servers for transaction processing or internal clouds, and AMD's motherboard designs are easy to customize.

Every motherboard can't be "one size-fits all," especially for the financial services industry, Rozanovich said.

"One thing we wanted to do is remove things that are not necessary," Rozanovich said.

Wall Street companies also typically want in-house server management, and one of AMD's modifications involved stripping management components from the motherboard, Rozanovich said. Some motherboards include components to remotely manage servers, and simplified boards gives financial services better control and management over servers.

The baseline hardware implemented by the financial services community is already very similar, and the open-source motherboard spec could make servers easier and less expensive to manage and deploy over time.

"If there can be community development that is not proprietary, it can benefit everybody," Rozanovich said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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