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How Facebook aims to reinvent hardware

Brandon Butler | May 7, 2013
Facebook used to be a company just like many others: It would buy servers, racks and other hardware from vendors like HP and Dell and rent out co-location space from vendors like DuPont Fabros and others.

The involvement by some of those companies is slightly paradoxical, says John Abbott, a distinguished analyst at the 451 Research Group who has been tracking the OCP. It puts some of those legacy hardware vendors in a precarious position. Participating companies in the project used to buy infrastructure directly from these companies; now OCP members like Facebook work with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), buy commodity components at less expensive prices and assemble it themselves. That's what Facebook has done. Rackspace, the open source cloud computing provider, said it's now doing this too. Every server Facebook and Rackspace builds itself is one less server Dell or HP makes money from.

If there have been any criticisms of the OCP thus far, though, it's that the initial rollout of the project has been geared mostly to large-scale data center users and service providers. The big question has been: What does this mean for regular old enterprises? "The way it's developing, it could have an impact on enterprises sooner rather than layer," Abbott says.

That's what Frankovsky is hoping for. He admits that this do-it-yourself model of assembling disparate hardware pieces may not be a good fit for everyone. A lot of companies don't have the scale to support staff to management hardware design and supply chain management.

But OCP is making a concerted effort to target more entry-level involvement for IT shops of medium and large-size businesses. For example, a variety of OCP integrators have begun cropping up in recent months. Firms like Synnex and Avnet are Open Compute Project system integrator companies that act as a bridge between OEMs and enterprises implementing the systems, with a goal of selling preconfigured hardware.

Facebook has also attempted to make OCP work more palatable for enterprises. One of the hottest portions of the project are suggestions Facebook has released related to reference architectures for making co-location spaces more efficient. By adjusting air temperatures and input and output of exhaust, for example, can create efficiencies for companies using co-location spaces, Frankovsky notes.

The OCP doesn't just want to be a series of open source projects for building new data centers and hardware boxes. "There are optimizations that mainstream enterprises can certainly benefit from," he says.

The overall point of the project is that infrastructure design has not had a big shakeup in a long time, and given the amount of new data being created, Frankovsky says it will become increasingly important that businesses find better ways to manage their hardware and tune it to their individual needs, not just buy proprietary, out-of-the-box solutions from legacy vendors.

The OCP is a project that encourages users of all sizes and manufacturers to think outside the box, beyond just the monolithic infrastructure designs that have dominated the industry in the past. Components of a data center can be disaggregated -- meaning that compute, storage and the chips controlling it are all physically separated and optimized for the company's using them and the software running on them. Even the legacy vendors like HP and Dell can have a role in supplying those components, Frankovsky says.


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