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Friends join Facebook's Open Compute project

What's not to like about open source hardware?

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Open Compute Summit Back in April, when Facebook opened up its Prineville, Oregon data center, it really opened it up.

The social media giant didn't just give a tour of the data center and brag about its smarts; it open sourced the server, rack, battery backup, and data center designs so anyone can use them an innovate on top of them as part of the Open Compute project.

At the Open Compute Summit in New York today, Frank Frankovsky, director of hardware design and supply chain at Facebook, rolled out a new non-profit organization, called the Open Compute Foundation. The OCF will provide structure to the project and decide what open source hardware gadgetry for hyperscale data centers will become projects, and what ones were not.

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Facebook, by the way, is not controlling this, even though it has dominating the Open Compute efforts thus far. The initial slate of directors and advisors for the foundation include Frankovsky, as well as Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim (who is now running Arista Networks) as well as Don Duet from Goldman Sachs, Mark Roenigk from Rackspace Hosting, and Jason Waxman from Intel.

"We really thought if there was some way to make Intel comfortable with open source hardware, others would follow," said Frankovsky. But don't expect for the Xeon E5 designs or their "Romley" motherboards to be open sourced any time before the universe comes to an end.

Waxman, who is general manager of high density computing at the chip giant, is getting a plum position just the same, and will chair the committee that will decide what does and does not become an official Open Compute project. The committee itself has not been formed, but Frankovsky said that the plan was to get around nine techies from across the data center spectrum to sit on the committee to help sort through potential projects.

The Open Compute Foundation is going to shepherd the design of any kind of open source hardware, but only things that relate explicitly to the needs of hyperscale data center operators like Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Yahoo! So don't think there will be open source hardware designs aimed at small and medium businesses, or even large enterprises with modest computing requirements (at least by Facebook standards).

But, the Open Compute specs for components like motherboards, full systems, the shells that wrap around them, and the equipment that feeds them, will be appropriate for service providers and others who are trying to build out cloudy infrastructure on a large scale – and do so as cheaply as possible and in a way that follows a standard.

Frankovsky said the foundation was set up three weeks ago, and you can read the bylaws of the foundation if you need to catch a nap.

When you commit to an Open Compute project, you are assigning copyrights to the foundation, but Bechtolsheim said that Open Compute was not about to get into patent wars with anyone over product designs. That may yet happen, particularly if someone claims to have invented a widget already that is embodied in an Open Compute spec.

The details have not been fully worked out, but Frankovsky said that there will eventually be a process whereby anyone wanting to make or support a piece of Open Compute hardware would be able to certify their finished product and slap the Open Compute brand on it.

There may be a business in this, and if so, Dell, which made a tidy sum selling custom servers to Facebook for the past five years through its Data Center Solutions unit, seems well positioned to sell these Open Compute boxes to other customers.

"If you want a server, I've got an order book in my briefcase," joked Jimmy Pike, chief architect and technologist for Dell's DCS unit.

But seriously, Dell is going to have to make Open Compute a business because that data center in Prineville, Oregon, which has 300,000 square feet of data center space and room for tens of thousands of servers, is using homegrown systems designed by Facebook with motherboards made by Quanta Computer and assembled by Synnex. These are not DCS machines at all.

It is not yet clear how the foundation is going to be funded, but it is not charging royalties on product designs. Those are free and people are also free to "iterate and innovate" atop them, even if the changes are not accepted back into the mainstream Open Compute project.

The full list of members in the Open Compute project has not been divulged yet (funny, that), but other than the companies listed above, ASUS has joined up and is publishing the design files for the "Wildcat" first generation of Open Compute system boards (the ones that are used in the Prineville data center) and the forthcoming "Windmill" boards, which are based on Intel's forthcoming "Sandy Bridge-EP" Xeon E5 processors. (El Reg told you about the Open Compute V1 servers here and the future V2 servers there.)

Other members of the Open Compute foundation include Mellanox and Huawei; software companies such as Red Hat, Cloudera, and Future Facilities; manufacturers (what Open Compute calls "enablers") such as DRT, Synnex, Nebula, Baidu, and Silicon Mechanics; and users and prospective users of the designs such as Mozilla, Rackspace Hosting, Netflix, NTT Data, Tivit, and Goldman Sachs. Georgia Tech and North Carolina State University are in talks to add Open Compute designs to their compsci curricula, and the boffins at CERN have also joined up.

With Bechtolsheim on board, you might be thinking that Open Compute would expand out to networking, adding it to the stack. But that's not going to happen any time soon.

"We do believe that focus is important to accomplish stuff," Bechtolsheim explained to El Reg. "And quite frankly, networking is a much harder problem to solve."

The real issue, as illustrated by the commercial blade server market Bechtolsheim explained, was to get rid of the "gratuitous differentiation" that all IT vendors engage in to gain some sort of hold on customers. (Good luck with that. I think running them out of business might be the only way to stop this process.)

Looking ahead, Waxman said that the foundation "has a lot of appetite, but we can only shovel it in so fast." He was personally keen on trying to figure out what future open source microserver designs might look like.

Frankovsky said that APC, Emerson Power, and a slew of other companies that supply power distribution, cooling, and other equipment for data centers will be invited to join the foundation and participate, but it is hard to imagine that they will with their intellectual property and revenues tied up in their own products and services.

It is just as likely that they join in as Google or Amazon, which make their own servers and which, you will notice, have not contributed any of their server smarts to the Open Compute cause. ®

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