NEW YORK — Facebook is dead serious about building common standards for efficient hardware in the data center.
On Thursday, the social networking giant launched the Open Compute Foundation, an industry association that aims to reduce the cost and environmental impact of the computers that run great swaths of the Internet. The foundation formalizes an effort the social media giant began in April, when it started the Open Compute Project (OCP).
In creating the Open Compute Project, Facebook “open sourced” its designs for a new data center that underpins its massive social networking service, and the foundation hopes to encourage other Internet icons to do much the same. The idea is to publish everything from the layout of server motherboards to the design of the warehouse-like buildings that house and cool the servers.
Open Compute members include Facebook, Intel, Dell, ASUS, Red Hat, Mozilla, Rackspace, NTT Data, and Netflix. Member organizations include corporations that make servers, software, networking equipment and power and cooling equipment, and companies that build and operate web-scale data centers.
The foundation is holding talks with the Open Data Center Association (ODCA), the user group for big data center operators founded by Intel. The foundation will take input from the ODCA’s hardware specification working group, said Frank Frankovsky, Director of Hardware Design and Supply Chain at Facebook and the face of the Open Compute Foundation.
Open Compute’s mission fills an urgent need, said Jason Waxman, general manager of High-Density Computing in Intel’s Data Center Group. The growth rate of server deployments will double over the next five years, he said. It will take “the equivalent of 45 coal power plants…just to keep up with that growth.”
Amazon Web Services illustrates the server boom well. Amazon’s daily increase of server capacity equals its entire capacity in 2000, when it had been in business for five years and pulled in $2.76 billion, said James Hamilton, an Amazon vice president and resident data center guru. Servers are close to the bottom line for Amazon Web Services. “That weighing point between being wildly successful and helping customers and being a tax on the company and not helping customers — the only difference is in the infrastructure,” said Hamilton.
In a related announcement, Facebook said it plans to build a massive data center just outside the Arctic Circle in the Swedish town of Lulea. The location means plenty of cold air to cool the servers and abundant hydroelectric power, which will meet most of the facility’s energy needs.
Open Compute’s specifications will standardize server motherboards, server racks, power supplies and cooling systems. This is analogous to the disk drive industry’s standardization of sizes and connectors, which made things easier for the industry’s customers and ended up boosting sales, said Andy Bechtolsheim, Founder and Chief Development Officer at Arista Networks, Inc. Bechtolsheim, who cofounded Sun Microsystems and was one of the first angel investors to fund Google, is on Open Compute’s board of directors.
The foundation is modeling itself on the open software movement and has taken its organizational cues from the Apache Software Foundation’s structure and bylaws, said Frankovsky. Open Compute’s bylaws are publicly available.
There are thousands of developers in the open software movement, including individuals who contribute bits and pieces when they have time. And there are many businesses built on open software. The realm of data center hardware is a bit different. In so far as Open Compute is a democracy, it is a democracy of the few. “In hardware, you need a supply-chain, you need a factory, you need access to low-cost parts,” said Bechtolsheim. “So it does benefit the larger vendors, let’s be honest here. You wouldn’t want to start a new company trying to build open racks.”
Open Compute is driven by equipment users — data center operators like Facebook, said Bechtolsheim. Server vendors differentiate their products in part on ancillary components at the expense of interoperability, he said. This greatly frustrates the data center operators, he said. “Open does away with gratuitous differentiation.”
Although the foundation’s efforts are likely to influence server design in general, the specs are aimed at helping web-scale data centers. “It’s not necessarily the ideal solution for every random commercial end-user that wants to add one more rack to their data center,” said Bechtolsheim.
Suppliers will also benefit from standardization in shared development costs, said Bechtolsheim. “There are only so many smart people in the world,” he said. “If everyone wants to write their own vertical standard, you waste all this intellectual capacity.”
Google is not an member foundation, but at Thursday’s launch, it was never far away from the discussion. As the behemoth among data center behemoths, the company has used its resources to make efficient, custom servers and data centers a competitive advantage.
Facebook has also put resources into designing efficient data centers, and much of its recent work is the core of the Open Compute Foundation’s initial specifications. By pivoting and fostering an open-software-like movement, Facebook can take advantage of collective development and more narrowly focus its internal development.
Of course, anyone else can do the same. “Apple wants to build a big iCloud. Obviously they want to minimize their power consumption and cost,” Bechtolsheim said. “I’m pretty sure they will look at this,” he said. And “they couldn’t have looked at this until it became an open spec.”
Facebook’s gain is twofold: by participating in the foundation they can more effectively influence their suppliers to meet their needs, and they can wrap themselves in the “open” flag at a time when Google is increasingly perceived as the new Microsoft. There is some irony in this, given the closed nature of Facebook’s product.
Open Compute is still finding its feet. It’s figuring out how to determine incubation committee membership. The nine-member incubation committee will select project proposals to forward to the board of directors for approval, said Frankovsky. Bechtolsheim is the committee’s chair.
The foundation is also wrestling with the issue of branding. One challenge is to keep companies from putting the OCP logo on everything so the brand doesn’t become diluted and mean nothing, said Frankovsky.