The Open Compute Project
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.”
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.”