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Facebook data center project takes aim at vendor lock-in

Facebook's Open Compute Project aims to reduce 'gratuitous differentiation' among IT vendors

By Joab Jackson, IDG News Service
October 27, 2011 08:35 PM ET

IDG News Service - By launching the Open Compute Project as a stand-alone foundation, Facebook is hoping to further standardize the market for data center equipment, thereby reducing costs and vendor lock-in, the new foundation's board members said at a press conference Thursday.

"What has been missing here has been standardization at the systems level," said Andreas Bechtolsheim, an OCP board member who co-founded Sun Microsystems and later was the first major investor in Google. He railed against "gratuitous differentiation" on the part of server vendors, who each have their own unique chassis or some other component that prevents users from intermingling the equipment with gear from other vendors.

On Thursday, at an event in New York, Facebook announced it has set up the Open Compute Project (OCP) as a stand-alone standards foundation. Executives from a number of IT companies, including Intel, Dell, Rackspace and Red Hat, have joined the governing board. The company first launched the Open Compute Project in April, in order to share the best practices in data center efficiency.

OCP has been modeled after the Apache Software Foundation, in that it would sponsor and manage projects developed by third parties, said Frank Frankovsky, a Facebook engineer who founded the project. Unlike the ASF, however, it would focus on open-source hardware projects instead of software. "Today, open-source isn't just something you use to describe software, but it's a way to describe hardware, as well," said Frankovsky.

The effort would focus on developing a set of specifications that vendors could use to build interoperable equipment, something data center managers today sorely need, according to the foundation's managers. If enough organizations demand equipment that meets these specs, the founders reason, the vendors will build the products to meet the specs.

Because of its quick growth, Facebook ended up building its own servers because it was the most economic option, once factors such as data center cooling and electricity usage were factored in.

"If we looked at the trajectory of growth that we had, and [had we] continued to scale the way we were scaling, with leased facilities and off-the-shelf servers and storage, not only would it have been ... a huge [capital expense burden] but also a huge [operating cost] burden" for the company, Frankovsky said. Since adhering to some of the best practices that the organizations later espoused through OCP, Facebook has been able to save 38 percent on operating costs and 24 percent on capital costs, Frankovsky said.

Facebook was not alone in this practice. Other Internet companies that experienced tremendous growth, such as Google, built their own servers as well, Bechtolsheim noted. Such companies didn't want to rely on a single vendor to solve hardware or software issues. They could design each server for their unique workload, picking the best off-the-shelf motherboard and adding unique features for their own environments, such as adding Velcro strips to the cases to aid in easy removal.

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