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Facebook's open hardware: Does it compute?

Open hardware is not open source

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Does Facebook need a server maker?

There are many lessons that the traditional server makers will immediately learn from the Facebook server designs and the Open Computer project.

The first thing is that hyperscale data center operators not only don't want to use general purpose machines, but to extract the most money from their businesses as possible, they can't use them. And that will not change as long as advertising on the Internet is a cut-throat business and consumers are unwilling to pay a lot of money for an application or a service (the difference is moot at this point). General purpose machines, with all that plastic and metal, with their service processors and wide variety of slots and peripheral options, are too expensive for Facebook, just as they have been for more traditional supercomputing cluster customers that have long-since preferred bare-bones boxes.

The second thing hyperscale Web customers - and maybe soon even enterprise and midrange shops - will figure out pretty damned quick is that once they have virtualized you server workloads and have high availability and failover built into your software stack, they won't need all those extra features either. And they will want the cheapo, minimalist servers, too. And they may not even go to the HPs, Dells, and IBMs of the world to get them. They may go straight to Quanta Computer for the motherboards, go straight to whoever is bending the metal for the chassis and the racks for Facebook, and go straight to disk and memory makers for those components, too.

It was telling that Dell's Data Center Solutions unit, which has been doing custom servers for four years and has been building bespoke machines for Facebook for the past three years, was at the event. While Forrest Norrod, vice president of Dell's server platforms, said that Dell was now building systems based on the two Facebook motherboards, he did not say that DCS was building servers for Facebook any more.

Now, extrapolate to those young upstart companies in the 20 top-growth economies of the world. Are they going to go for PowerEdge-C quasi-custom boxes from Dell, or ProLiant SL tray servers from HP, or iDataPlex servers from IBM, or will they watch carefully what Facebook does and just try to buy the cheapo boxes Facebook has designed at wholesale prices instead of retail? I think we know the answer to that question. Did China wire itself with land lines when it created a real economy a decade ago? No, China went straight to cell phones.

The question is will Open Compute actually foment a community of hardware designers and open source specs, especially when the community that is most in need of super-efficiency does not like to share information about their servers, storage, software, and data centers because this is, in actuality, the very essence of the company. I think the answer is, sorry to say, probably not. Hardware costs real money, but twiddling around with bits of open source code doesn't really cost open source coders anything.

Who knows? Perhaps service companies all around the world will spring up, bending metal and building Open Compute boxes and offering add-on tech support or other services for these machines. It would be a very interesting way to get some new players with new ideas into the server racket. At best, there might be one or two Open Compute distributors some day, but that might be just enough to change the server business from a push - buy what we got - to a pull - what do you want? ®

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