Users Drive to Open up Hardware

Arthur Cole

There's a revolution going on in IT hardware these days, but it's not about making things bigger, faster and more powerful. Rather, this is a change in the relationship between user and vendor, or, more specifically, who will be in charge of the direction of systems development.

The public face of this movement is Facebook's Open Compute Project, although other top-tier enterprises like Google are pursuing similar tracks by designing and building their own hardware platforms as a means to tailor enterprise systems to their own needs. What makes Facebook different is that the company plans to release its designs on the open market, eventually, ushering in a broad-based, open-source platform that will instantly count one of the top hardware consumers as a solid customer.

Already, leading vendors like HP, VMware, AMD and Supermicro are on board, as well as rising service providers like Salesforce. Facebook has already built its Prineville, Ore., facility as a demo of the OCP concept. Company sources say it was able to shave about a quarter off the typical capex budget and nearly 40 percent from operations.

One of the primary upgrades that OCP-compliant facilities should see won't be in server, storage or networking gear but in the racks that house them, according to IDG's Joab Jackson. The entire environment is built around the new Open Rack chassis, a replacement for the decades-old EIA 310-D rack. A key improvement is standardization not only of the inner rail, but height, depth and mounting systems as well. That means any rack from any vendor should hold a device properly, as long as they are OCP-compliant. The OCP rack is slated to measure 48 inches tall and 24 inches wide, with 21-inch equipment bays.

Any changes that do come about for actual hardware will be more feature-driven than performance-driven, says Facebook VP Frank Frankovsky, or perhaps it's more accurate to say "less" feature-driven. Typical commodity servers, for example, usually come jam-packed with special features intended to appeal to the widest possible user set. The OCP spec, however, stresses low power, ease of maintenance and light weight, with many of the bells and whistles layered onto management software. This allows Facebook to have broad sway over the direction of the market, while still providing the ability for other enterprises to tweak their data center environments to their own ends.

Those who need high performance will certainly be able to get it with OCP, however. A systems integration company called Hyve Solutions has already received OCP status and is ready with an integrated solutions built around Fusion-io's ION Data Accelerator. The system provides more than a million IOPS with 0.06 millisecond latency, along with RAID capability, LUN creation and management, SNMP and performance monitoring. It can be incorporated into iSCSI, Fibre Channel and InfiniBand environments.

For nearly the entire history of IT, systems development was managed largely by the top-tier vendors, albeit with a healthy supply of feedback from their most loyal customers. But now that the buyers of IT equipment are as tech-savvy, if not more so, and as well-heeled as the IBMs, HPs and Ciscos of the world, the balance of power is shifting.

Over the next decade, expect to see more user-driven developments as the world comes to accept more tailored solutions as the new normal, even in hardware.



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