The Open Com­pute Pro­ject

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IT STARTED OUT AS AN IDEA IN­TER­NAL TO FACE­BOOK, DREAMED UP IN THE ‘WEE SMALL HOURS’ IN A DATA CEN­TRE. IN FIVE YEARS, IT HAS TURNED THE $145BN DATA CEN­TRE MAR­KET IN­SIDE-OUT. BILL BOYLE ASKS WHERE OPEN COM­PUTE WILL TAKE TEL­COS

Ihave heard a num­ber of ‘ori­gin’ sto­ries about the birth of the Open Com­pute Pro­ject (OCP). I have also met many more peo­ple who say they were present at the birth of the idea, at 4.00am dur­ing a meal break at Face­book’s first data cen­tre than is pos­si­ble. Such is the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of this event.

Face­book’s OCP has done for hard­ware what Linux and An­droid have al­ready done for soft­ware – made it free and open source.

This means any­one can use or mod­ify the de­signs of en­ter­prise equip­ment that vast cor­po­rates use — for free. Open source has been revo­lu­tion­ary and com­pletely dis­rup­tive. This was how both Linux, the soft­ware run­ning most in­ter­na­tional data cen­tres, and An­droid, the smart­phone soft­ware were born.

Huge con­glom­er­ates like Mi­crosoft, Nokia, 3Com and Black­berry have been dis­rupted. OCP is lim­ber­ing up to do the same to age­ing hard­ware out­fits like Cisco.

Jonathan Heiliger came up with the OCP idea in 2011 when he was the head of Face­book’s in­fra­struc­ture team. Pushed by the in­creas­ingly vo­cal green lobby to save some of the enor­mous amounts of wa­ter used to cool the av­er­age data cen­tre, Face­book built its first green data cen­tre and then pub­lished the Prineville de­signs to con­trib­ute to the green data cen­tre move­ment.

Then Heiliger had an idea: Why not share all Face­book’s hard­ware de­signs?

Heiliger ar­gued that the tech­nol­ogy, par­tic­u­larly the hard­ware, ‘is not our com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage,’ more­over, that ‘open source should be a core tenet at Face­book.’

He talked to some of his Face­book col­leagues on that fate­ful evening then pub­lished the idea. It took off like a rocket. The first Open Com­pute Sum­mit had 300 at­ten­dees. They ex­pected thirty. The third had over 1,500 from all over the world.

The hard ad­van­tages

There are big ad­van­tages to mak­ing hard­ware open source.

Hard­ware en­gi­neers can col­lab­o­rate eas­ily. Dif­fi­cult prob­lems can be fixed faster. More­over, ev­ery­one would be able to share the re­sults.

This is a ma­jor shift away from the clas­sic cul­ture of se­crecy, jeal­ously guarded patents, lengthy law­suits and cul­tures of se­crecy that has ruled the tech in­dus­try for decades. Since Face­book did not man­u­fac­ture hard­ware, there was no risk to its core busi­ness to pub­lish how it de­ployed and made its soft­ware.

At that point, they threw out one of the shib­bo­leths: “There was one com­pany in Moun­tain View that thinks their tech is a dif­fer­en­tia­tor. We did not be­lieve that,” Heiliger said at the time, re­fer­ring to the fact that Google builds its hard­ware and its own soft­ware and keeps it se­cret.

At the heart of the Open Com­pute Pro­ject is a uni­ver­sal truth which de­vel­op­ers know by heart – that at a cer­tain point hard­ware be­comes a com­mod­ity - switch­ing brands will make much ut­terly no dif­fer­ence to your per­for­mance. That was also, un­til the ad­vent of cloud com­put­ing, the se­cret of en­ter­prise soft­ware. How­ever, even the en­ter­prise is us­ing cheap end-user de­vices and as Mi­crosoft’s PC de­cline demon­strates, the world has moved to mo­bile far faster than we ex­pected.

Google and Ama­zon Web Ser­vices (AWS) are aim­ing at hav­ing ev­ery­one hooked on cloud. They see it as in­evitable af­ter a pe­riod of hy­brid cloud – where en­ter­prises use a mix­ture of pri­vate (in-house) and pub­lic (Ama­zon and Google). Google’s chief soft­ware en­gi­neer Urs Höl­zle has said: “I think five years from now, my goal is that all the CIOS of the Citibanks of the world are Google cus­tomers be­cause they re­alise it is far bet­ter than do­ing it them­selves.”

Smart moves

Heiliger hired Frank Frankovsky from Dell to help cre­ate the new Face­book hard­ware and to lead the Open Com­pute Pro­ject. Frankovsky quickly be­came its face and big­gest evan­ge­list.

Heiliger then brought In­tel on board. In­tel’s le­gal team set up OCP’S le­gal struc­ture and de­signed so that com­pa­nies could share tech­nol­ogy with­out also shar­ing trade se­crets.

Then Gold­man Sachs joined the board. They thought the hard­ware in­dus­try was be­hind since it was dom­i­nated by a small num­ber of big ven­dors.

If any­one was sur­prised it was Gold­mans when the first con­fer­ence turned out to be a big suc­cess - they thought pos­si­ble 50 peo­ple would turn up - in­stead over 300 came.

Frankovsky does not agree with Höl­zle’s sug­ges­tion that all com­pute should re­side in the cloud: “If you are us­ing only 100 to 200 com­put­ers, that is 80% of ev­ery­one on the In­ter­net, you should use the cloud. The ques­tion al­ways comes up, when should you exit the cloud? The an­swer seems to be when your cloud bill in­evitably be­comes as big as your old in­ter­nal team of staffers.

The fi­nan­cial ser­vices in­dus­try will spend nearly $200 bil­lion com­bined on tech in 2015 alone. “The fas­ci­nat­ing thing is that in­dus­try most rav­en­ous to adopt OCP has been the fi­nance world,” Frankovsky told Busi­ness In­sider re­cently.

Fi­delity In­vest­ments says its adop­tion of OCP hard­ware has taken its data cen­tre en­ergy bill down by over 20%.

If you work closely with your clients then you know what they want.

Mov­ing on down the line

Iron­i­cally the founders of the OCP move­ment who have since moved on are caus­ing as much dis­rup­tion as those who still run it. This type of de­vel­op­ment is what tel­cos should be study­ing hun­grily.

To the sur­prise of many, last year Frankovsky left Face­book and launched an OCP hard­ware startup, Op­ti­cal Archive Inc.; that was us­ing Blu-ray disks in place of hard drives or tape to store files. Op­ti­cal Archive, as­ton­ish­ingly enough, has al­ready been pur­chased by Sony for an undis­closed sum. This was a startup that didn’t raise any out­side fund­ing and didn’t have a stated price tag!

Apart from high­light­ing a hot area in the data cen­tre world – stor­age - and trum­pets Sony’s en­try into sell­ing prod­ucts for the cor­po­rate data cen­tre.

Then there’s Va­por IO, the data cen­tre startup cre­ated by OCP’S for­mer ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor and sky-diver, Cole Craw­ford, which has launched a revo­lu­tion­ary new line in tiny, por­ta­ble all-ter­rain data cen­tres and is about to dis­rupt the telco seg­ment of the IOT in­dus­try. Another no­table star­tups is Rex Com­put­ing, launched by a Bri­tiah teenager who I met at the San Jose OCP event.

The most im­portnt re­cent part of the OCP story was HP’S server unit be­com­ing an OCP con­tract man­u­fac­turer and launch­ing its own new series of OCP servers. This was done in tan­dem with Fox­conn, the Chi­nese assem­bly spe­cial­ist bet­ter known for its work with Ap­ple.

How­ever, the prob­lem for old-style box-shifters like HP and Dell is that any­thing apart from a cookie-cut­ter white box means you are forced to fol­low a de­sign you do not own and can­not con­trol. It also means they can­not run atra­di­tional sup­ply chain. It is sim­ply im­pos­si­ble to or­der parts in huge dis­counted quan­ti­tie, if you did not de­sign them.

HP has signed up to shift the OCP’S switch – a di­rect com­peti­tor to Cisco’s. How­ever, the long-held be­lief of many that it is merely time be­fore Cisco fol­lows HP lead and joins the open-source hard­ware move­ment, is not go­ing to hap­pen soon.

And that’s where tele­coms comes in. Four of the big­gest tele­cos — AT&T, Ver­i­zon, Deutsche Telekom, and SK Telecom — re­cently joined the OCP. Through a sub-pro­ject ded­i­cated to the needs of tele­coms, they too will ex­plore open source servers and net­work­ing equip­ment that can boost ef­fi­ciency and re­duce costs.

Where have all the tel­cos gone

Corey Bell, joint CEO of the Open Com­pute Pro­ject, says: “The telco mem­bers of Open Com­pute are work­ing hard across all in­dus­try groups to de­liver. They are the only in­dus­try work­ing across all dis­ci­plines: cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and in­ter­op­er­abil­ity; data cen­tres; hard­ware man­age­ment; high-per­for­mance com­put­ing; net­work­ing; servers; Open Rack and stor­age. Bell says: “Open Com­pute is driv­ing rad­i­cal change in the in­dus­try through shar­ing, open dis­cus­sion, driv­ing up ef­fi­ciency and driv­ing down costs. With over 165 ac­tive mem­bers of the Open Com­pute Pro­ject telco net­work­ing group we are reach­ing the point where we have agree­ment on things like car­rier rack ar­chi­tec­ture and soon the whole stack will be stan­dard­ised. This will smooth the way for the adop­tion of net­works func­tions vir­tu­al­i­sa­tion (NFV) and soft­ware de­fined net­work­ing (SDN) where the East – West data cen­tre traf­fic re­places the North – South noise.”

This un­der­mines Cisco and HP. The tele­cos are real­is­ing the value they get out of a tra­di­tional sup­plier is dwin­dling alarm­ingly.

AT&T has long said it in­tends to ‘vir­tu­alise 75% of its net­work by 2020. This is the Google model where net­work logic sits in the soft­ware rather than the hard­ware. This is now called “soft­ware­de­fined net­work­ing,” or SDN. AT&T is at the fore­front of free­ing it­self from equip­ment that is not so easy pro­grammed.

In June 2016 it opened-sourced some of these de­signs through the Open Com­pute Pro­ject. As Bell says: “The Open Com­pute move­ment may not ap­pear to be revo­lu­tion­ary but it is open­ing some big new op­por­tu­ni­ties and they are lead­ing us into the world of truly vir­tu­alised soft­ware dom­i­nance.”

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