Open – The New Attack on Major Computing Vendors

For many years Facebook has been building its own machines using an approach that ensures they pay only for what their specifications require and strips out the hardware and software features not needed for FB’s specific applications. It is this approach, which they have employed to build out their own network has led to a joint effort by FB, Intel, Broadcom, Mellanox together in the “Open Compute Project”.

The aim of the project was framed roughly two years ago with Facebook acknowledging the success of using open platform designs to transform energy efficiency in global data centers.

According to a release from PR Newswire issued at the launch of the project in 2011, “Facebook and our development partners have invested tens of millions of dollars over the past two years to build upon industry specifications to create the most efficient computing infrastructure possible,” said Jonathan Heiliger, vice president of technical operations at Facebook.

“These advancements are good for Facebook, but we think they could benefit all companies. Today we’re launching the Open Compute Project, a user-led forum, to share our designs and collaborate with anyone interested in highly efficient server and data center designs. We think it’s time to demystify the biggest capital expense of an online business — the infrastructure.”

Spin up to today and we see that the member companies of the project and some other vendors are beginning to release testable designs for an “Open Compute Switch”, a top-of-rack bare metal switch with a boot loader that project partner Cumulus Networks developed. Broadcom introduced and built a switch based on the Trident II chip architecture, while Mellanox put forward its SwitchX-2 switch, and Intel offered a specification for a switch that Quanta and Accton have been building. The three switches are now being tested in Facebook’s labs.

Hardware vendors like Hyve Solutions have released designs to meet the server needs of the project. Now the arrival of a webscale-approved open-source switch is just around the corner, six months after the Open Compute Project announced plans to come up with such a switch.

But contributions to the project now go beyond hardware. Cumulus Networks, which delivers a Linux networking operating system, is providing the Open Network Install Environment for the Open Compute Project. The idea is to be able to run different operating systems on networking hardware, said JR Rivers, CEO and a co-founder of Cumulus.

If successful it could provide alternatives to alternative networking vendors like Cisco, Arista Networks and the struggling Dell Force 10 division. The major reason is that the project promises to deliver a “specification and a reference box for an open, OS-agnostic top-of-rack switch.” Whether that reference box will be based on an amalgam of submitted specifications or just one of them isn’t clear yet, and no release date has been set.”

Cisco seems unimpressed so far by the project and has itself become involved in another “open” oriented project that may offer attractive alternatives to the Open Compute. The project “OpenDaylight” and others are their way of not letting another idea slip by them as they did with Software Defined Networking at first. Their hope is to avoid getting behind others and having to play defense with their market.

The beauty of the open concept is that it frees developers and IT teams to keep both costs and energy use down within these new data center concepts. It also allows the already existing community of open source developers to provide expertise and lower cost development resources, and bypass the more expensive proprietary system vendors. It also means that equipment specs will no longer “one size fits all” but rather a size that fits your organization’s needs.

There are a number of well qualified open source experts that are well versed in all aspects of data center operation, data warehouse design and integration of new open source technologies. Several of these are located offshore and typically the better ones have U.S. teams or project teams in multiple countries to make ongoing contact with clients efficient and productive.

Given Facebooks now impressive network, the way they have shown the way for many other providers and customers, you can bet more and more “open” is in our future.