Inside Facebook's lab: A mission to make hardware open source

Summary:A look behind the scenes of Facebook's hardware lab, the spiritual home of the Open Compute datacentre hardware movement, which may radically change the type of IT enterprises use, and who they buy it from.

... processing power, so data-intensive servers will get more computers, and less-intensive ones - such as an array storing a bunch of rarely accessed three-year-old photos — get less. 

"Typically when we deployed storage before, we kept a very fixed ratio of CPU to disk," Michael said. "What is unique about Knox is we can vary the number of disks to each CPU."

So far, Knox has gone through three separate iterations: red boards mean it's the first generation, yellow, the second, and green, production. Facebook hopes to begin mass production of Knox systems in October, and they will be manufactured by Wiwynn, an Asian original device manufacturer. 

The Asian Connection

Facebook's use of Wiwynn and other ODMs, such as Quanta, represents another Open Compute approach that could be a boon for IT buyers. 

By using an ODM, businesses can customise an Open Compute server or storage design according to their needs, then go directly to a manufacturer for the hardware to be built. This completely sidesteps the typically hefty mark-ups added by both channel companies and enterprise vendors.

Wiwynn already has customisable Open Compute storage and server designs available on its website.

Besides giving customers more options aside from the channel and enterprise vendors, the scheme has also improved the fortunes of the ODMs themselves.

To meet expected demand for such equipment, Quanta said in May that it will launch a US-based subsidiary to sell Open Compute hardware to US companies. 

Some businesses will still go the OEM route, Michael said, but this is more due to the associated integration, delivery and support services, combined with an aggressive salesforce, than technical need. Ultimately, Michael thinks OEMs such as Dell, HP or IBM are primarily geared to deal with customers with a few servers, rather than the thousands that Facebook, Google or Microsoft operate.

Rear rack
From storage to compute and up to the rack, Facebook is trying to create a totally open datacentre. Image: Jack Clark

The long road to an open-source datacentre

So far, HP, Dell, AMD, Intel and a few other vendors have stated that they are working on Open Compute-based kit. 

In the future, Facebook hopes to see component vendors publish some of the designs of their equipment in an open-source format.

"It's starting to get ticked off around the edges," Michael said, noting that Mellanox is expected to publish as open source an Open Compute server network-interface card (NIC). It does not threaten the company's business model to do this, as "what they're trying to sell is the silicon", he argues.

Along with this, he hopes Intel could openly publish some of its motherboard designs. "Intel doesn't really need to keep [them] secret," he said. 

And, one day, he thinks it could be possible for this component openness to "get into the level of the chip as well," though that is probably a long way off. 

All in all, "we're seeing really impressive design work from members of the Open Compute consortium", Corddry said. "We really have what you would call an open-source movement."

If the scheme continues, then Corddry thinks Open Compute gear could fit 90 percent or more of basic datacentre infrastructure needs.

Barriers to entry

The Open Compute initiative could succeed because it has the potential to lower the barriers of entry to datacentre-intensive technologies such as web search, according to Simon Wardley, a researcher at the Leading Edge Forum. 

"If we look at cloud computing in terms of infrastructure, this is all about commodity provision, it's all about operational efficiency," Wardley said. "Anything [that lowers the barrier of entry] in that space will enable competitors to set up and compete."

"There's been all sorts of open-source collaborative efforts around hardware before, but I can't think of one at this scale," he added.

If more vendors participate in the effort and more components get an open-source variant, then Michael thinks it could spur a major change in the datacentre technology industry.

"A lot of the [datacentre] infrastructure has the potential to come down in cost," Michael says. "From the end-user level, the stuff that's already free, you'll get more of it. The things that you pay for will just benefit."

Topics: Data Centers, Cloud, Hardware, Open Source, Social Enterprise


Jack Clark has spent the past three years writing about the technical and economic principles that are driving the shift to cloud computing. He's visited data centers on two continents, quizzed senior engineers from Google, Intel and Facebook on the technologies they work on and read more technical papers than you care to name on topics f... Full Bio

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