Modular Right Down to the Motherboard

    Modular is in these days as the enterprise strives to meet capacity and scalability needs through low-cost, easily replaceable compute, storage and networking components.

    But while most of the attention has gone to containerized data center modules or hot-swappable server and storage systems, another revolution is taking place on a much smaller scale. Through efforts like Facebook’s Open Compute Project (OCP), motherboards and other devices will soon feature modular designs to allow techies to replace only failed components, like processors, rather than the entire unit. In this way, the enterprise should be able to cut its product lifecycle budgets significantly, even while it helps to reduce the amount of e-waste that winds up in landfills every year.

    At the moment, much of the OCP plan is still in the design stage. However, it has gained the backing of some notable names, including Dell, which is significant considering that hardware manufacturers have a lot to lose if data centers start swapping out select components rather than full servers. Expect to see open-sourced releases of a number of Facebook’s key technologies in the near future, such as the company’s web and database servers.

    Of course, chip manufacturers are jumping all over the opportunity to simplify the replacement process. AMD is hard at work on an open, modular motherboard under its Open 3.0 platform. Formerly known as Roadrunner, the design is aimed at HPC, cloud and storage applications. And the built-in modularity is expected to foster a high degree of customization, allowing the enterprise to more closely match its hardware infrastructure to the needs of select applications and user environments.

    Intel has been a little less upfront about its modular plans, although word has it that the company is looking to move key elements like the network or storage controller off the main motherboard to its own optimized platforms, and then tie the whole design together through fiber optics. (Is anyone ready for a 100 Gbps interface?) In this way, upgrading these components becomes easier, and, more importantly, they can be shared across multiple servers, perhaps forming the heart of a distributed microserver architecture.

    As well, new forms of modular PCs are hitting the channel. XI3’s Kickstart project is ready to bear fruit in the form of the Piston gaming device — a graphics-heavy machine that has already gained the backing of Valve for its Steam platform. The system packs quad-core AMD Fusion processors and 1 TB of storage and features a modular motherboard designed to simplify the exchange of select components once they lose their cutting-edge status. After all, gamers are the least tolerant of obsolescence.

    Still unclear, however, is whether this degree of modularity will deliver a net gain or a net loss for the enterprise. Replacing even open, modular compute or networking silicon is still likely to require a fairly high skillset among the IT work force, while the increased use of commodity hardware means both the cost and complexity of replacing failed or outdated systems has become relatively cheap and easy.

    Modularity right down to the motherboard will undoubtedly find a niche in some highly specialized environments, but it’s hard to see how it will provide significant benefit to the broader web-centric and number-crunching platforms in place today.

    However, from such small beginnings are empires built, so it could very well be that this form of modularity will play itself out ways that aren’t entirely clear.

    Arthur Cole
    Arthur Cole
    With more than 20 years of experience in technology journalism, Arthur has written on the rise of everything from the first digital video editing platforms to virtualization, advanced cloud architectures and the Internet of Things. He is a regular contributor to IT Business Edge and Enterprise Networking Planet and provides blog posts and other web content to numerous company web sites in the high-tech and data communications industries.

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