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Open-Source Hardware: Prepare For Disruption

Could open-source hardware shake up the datacenter the way Linux disrupted software? From Facebook to Fidelity, a few big companies say this concept works.

While the open-source hardware movement started around motherboards and servers, vendors of other types of equipment are taking notice.

In networking, the first designs for switches came in May, submitted by Broadcom Networking and Cumulus Networks, soon followed by Intel and Mellanox. Initially, the Open Compute Networking Project seeks to produce designs for top-of-rack switches, but it plans to expand into spine switches that connect rows of similar racks in a datacenter, potentially giving open-source switches a larger role inside the datacenter.

In storage, the Open Compute Storage Project includes Open Vault, which packs a set of 30 disk drives into a 2U rack space. The set can work with almost any host server, according to the OCP storage web page. This openness is a hallmark of open-source hardware; it's seeking to give users interchangeable parts, built by separate manufacturers to the same specification.

What do conventional vendors think? Dell, for one, doesn't think OCP will appeal anytime soon to IT managers outside of financial services. Dell is an OCP member, and it offers OCP-inspired Decathlete motherboards in its DCS 1240 servers. But all OCP designs have limited appeal because they spring from "a close-knit group in the financial services industry" and thus skew too heavily toward those companies' interests, says Stephen Rousset, director of architecture in Dell's datacenter solutions unit.

Something similar was once said about Linux and the Apache Web Server: They would be used only by developers and Internet startups. That software, however, is now mainstream in datacenters in every industry. So it's worth looking at why one financial services company, Fidelity, is so interested in the Open Compute Project.

One early adopter's experience
Fidelity is among the world's largest financial companies, with $1.88 trillion in assets under management. Brady, Fidelity's executive VP of IT, leads a team that's training employees "to bring different expectations " when they need computing power from the growing private-cloud datacenter environment. If developers in a business unit are creating a new application, they can provision servers themselves to meet the size and performance they need, knowing their unit will be billed accordingly. "When they're engaged in two-week app development sprints, they can get new capacity up and running very quickly," Brady says.

Instead of forcing the unwilling to use Fidelity's private cloud environment, Brady relies on volunteers. "There's been no top-down mandate to migrate," he says. Other groups have followed the lead of developers, and he describes "tremendous interest inside the company," with people creating and destroying thousands of virtual server instances themselves every month rather than waiting for IT to buy, set up, and deploy physical servers.

"We teach them to fish, then we get out of the way," Brady says. "We think the culture has changed." A big change is that IT can say yes a lot more frequently, since it has more flexible capacity on demand when someone has a new idea that requires a new application and computing power. "We've lowered the bar to innovation. When someone wants to do something, we tell them to go do it."

Fidelity isn't looking to OCP only for hardware specs. It also wants to learn about a new style of datacenter operations, at massive scale, from one of the best teachers -- Facebook -- whose experience with rapid infrastructure build-out few can match.

Goldman Sachs is looking to OCP to reduce complexity as the firm's technology footprint grows, says Duet, who's also a member of the Open Compute Foundation board. "Simplification at scale is incredibly important to us," he says.

Threats and opportunities
OCP's participants reinforce the notion that the project is financial-industry-focused. When AMD announced its Roadrunner motherboard in May 2012, it explained that it was "specifically designed to meet the... compute and storage needs of the financial services industry." OCP's description of Intel's Decathlete board says it's a design for financial services.

Financial services firms have some needs similar to Facebook's around large server farms supporting a small number of operations conducted at very high volumes and speed -- make a trade, transfer funds, record a "like." OCP designs are optimized for such operations at a scale to which only a handful of companies will ever aspire.

One way to gauge the project's progress is to look at the list of OCP-certified product providers. It's short -- "under 10," says Facebook's Frankovsky. It includes Avnet, Quanta Computer, Penguin Computing, and Hyve Solutions, a unit of Synnex. Dell, IBM, HP, and Lenovo aren't on the list, which means they can't use the OCP trademark. HP and Dell are both members of OCP and produce what they say are servers that comply with OCP specs.

But the manufacturer validation process isn't firm enough yet for buyers to be sure what OCP-certified means, says John Gromala, senior director of product management for HP servers. "HP builds servers to the specifications set by our customers," Gromala says. "If they've ordered OCP-compliant servers, we've built them to the customer's satisfaction." In other words, HP isn't rebuilding its production lines to the interests of one narrow market segment.

Dell's Rousset predicts that upstart hardware vendors will have trouble meeting the needs of financial services companies, which tend to order hardware and expect delivery on short notice. For customers interested in OCP, Dell will supply them with servers based on a Decathlete-spec motherboard, though without the OCP trademark.

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Strategist
2/5/2014 | 3:34:41 PM
Is there enough financial incentive?
Is there enough financial incentive to switch? I think there is, but the main reason is to get into a design stream that produces a barebones server for the next generation data center. Redundant power supplies, redundant fans, even graphical processor units found on today's servers may all be dispensed with in a cloud setting. There, the software will detect pending device failure, shift workloads elsewhere, shutdown the server and schedule a component replacement. Also, placement of cables and wiring, placement in the rack, all of these things change as you move into a large scale-out or cloud setting. If the cost were the same, Fidelity, others would still want to do it. 

User Rank: Author
2/3/2014 | 8:00:40 PM
Re: Open Compute: Broad Appeal or Narrow?
When Linux and other open source software moved into a market, incumbent proprietary software vendors were generally soaking up fat profit margins and enjoying rising prices. Commodity server prices are falling and the margins are such that IBM is bailing out of the x86 business. Is there enough financial incentive to switch to open hardware? 
User Rank: Strategist
2/3/2014 | 6:27:55 PM
Open Source hardware free of backdoors?
Tom, Do you mean you think an Open Source design produced by a custom manufacturer of choice is much less likely to have an NSA-planted, backdoor access route? I hadn't thought of that as a driver of this type of hardware.
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
2/3/2014 | 4:53:08 PM
Re: Open Compute: Broad Appeal or Narrow?
Does post-Snowden IT security auditing play a role in the appeal of OCP designs? I would think that with the paranoia about the potential for intelligence agencies to subvert hardware, open source designs would be a requirement as a matter of due diligence.
IW Pick
User Rank: Apprentice
2/3/2014 | 2:55:20 PM
It's about trust and the old "economy of scale".
I think they are on to something here that could be a big game changer -- at least for the hardware companies looking for an advantage against the big guys. For Facebook and others dealing with the same hardware delemma and capacity / energy needs,  a move like this becomes necessity. The real problem is can you trust the ones promoting change? For the proponents, can you afford to go it alone? But this is the gamble that companies will endure and why they get involved and or create a forum to promote like minded entities. And in the end it's about trust in the ones proposing change versus ones return on investment. 
User Rank: Strategist
2/3/2014 | 1:11:32 PM
Open Compute: Broad Appeal or Narrow?
Rob, I think the time lapse from leading edge adopter to mainstream use is longer with open source hardware than with software, and it's possible that there will be industry-specific server designs. Financial services companies tend to watch market leaders like Fidelity or State Street Bank, then quickly follow suit if it's onto a good thing. But, Rob, I'm a software guy and I don't have a good feel for how quickly hardware designs evolve or get adopted into mainstream markets. And some people, I know, think Open Compute will tend to address a narrow segment of the market.
User Rank: Author
2/3/2014 | 11:01:15 AM
How Soon?
Charlie, in your view how long until open source hardware moves from the domain of very big, engineering-focused companies (such as Facebook and Fidelity) to most businesses with a competent IT organization?
User Rank: Author
2/3/2014 | 10:59:45 AM
Fidelity's experience
Not suprising that Fidelity's experience is not music to Dell's ears. Of course financial service IT has more financial resources (and political capital) than is the case in many other verticals. It will be quite interesting to see if innovative IT teams in other verticals choose to mimic what Fidelity has done. How hard would it be to do this kind of revamp at your company?
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