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

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

About Jack Clark

Currently a reporter for ZDNet UK, I previously worked as a technology researcher and reporter for a London-based news agency.

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  • Nice to see an informative article and not another iPhone click bait

    Enough with Apple already!
    • Absolutely.

      ZDNet really need to stop focusing so much on the 28% of the consumer phone market at the risk of alienating the rest of the marketplace.

      It was becoming extremely tiring. And this article is also written without the usual brand name fanboyism that "really" irrates.

      If I wanted link bait and flame wars I'd go visit 4chan.
      • We're "customers", not "consumers"

        We don't eat silicon, and one of those two terms strips us of any authority... I am a customer and I demand more than just lamely built garbage in return for my very hard-earned money.
        • "Consumer" does seem to be an odd choice

          But here ya go, straight from the horse's mouth:

          con·sum·er /kuhn-soo-mer/

          1. A person who purchases goods and services for personal use.
          2. A person or thing that eats or uses something.

          user - purchaser - customer

          Source: Google
  • This is a new approach to server rack design?

    "They take power in from a power distribution system that lives in a portion of the rack, rather than the server"

    The miltary's been using that type system for quite some time. I'm not seeing how this is some "new approach"
    William Farrel
    • Innovation is taking an idea from one place

      and applying it in another place. In this case, Facebook is taking an idea from the Military, and applying it to civilian use.
      • how it all started !!!!

        how it all started !!!!
        • The internet itself... bingo

          Still, "open source" implies the programs made are free, with source code provided. There are some exceptions, but those of those tend to be service-oriented.

          Facebook, to those who pay attention, is not to be trusted. They have not earned it, their terms of use is predatory, they take corporate welfare, sold out under those who were gullible enough to invest in this leech of a company, and their opt-in security policies just show how utterly disingenuous they truly are.
      • Isn't that something like a blade server?

        In the sense that power is supplied via a backplane, with the server being that of the cards themselves?
      • More info on military

        Hello mheartwood,
        I hadn't heard of military schemes to do this. If you can perhaps remember the names of any programs, equipment or equipment suppliers then I'll take a look into it. Thanks very much for commenting!
        Jack Clark
    • Inside Facebook's lab: A mission to make hardware open source

      @William Farrel
      technology advances always started with your tax money... the europeans are trying to leapfrog by spending multi-billion dollars on their Large Hadron Collider. uncle sam did it before with the manhattan project, the nasa, the arpa/darpa, etc. and as always the military was the major beneficiary for all the advances, before filtering down to the commercial market. so, yes the military was using the technique before... but facebook is trying to innovate from those advances without spending billions in r&d reinventing the wheels.
  • Energy savings don't start at the drive level........

    It starts at the point where fuels are burnt and electricity made. As long as the cloud is powered by big powerplants that push Kilovolts down the grid, which are than transformed down to 110 or 220 Volt and than again transformed down to 5 and 12 volt to feed your CPU and drive, we are loosing this battle. From the 100 watts that are made by that distant powerplant, less than 40 watts reach your computer, The rest is dissipated along the way.

    We will start making real savings only when the industry realizes that the power that feed their computers should be produced as close to the data centre as possible and that that power should go from burning fuel to 12 volt via the shortest possible technical route.
    There is plenty of technology that will do just that, but as long as wasting energy in the grid is cheaper than using "clean" technology we are not going to get that.
    • Some of the big players have realized this...

      Microsoft, Google, others, have been, for instance, building large data centers along the Columbia river in Oregon and Washington in the vicinity of dams that produce the power.
  • pretty interesting

    but at the same time it is going to push vendors out of the market.
    • Or force them to change their ways...

      Hey Jimster480,
      I think it could do both things. On the one hand, it could threaten certain systems made by the major OEMs, on the other hand they could adopt the tech and do their own systems based on it. Think Chinese telco are involved in Open Rack and I have suspicions that HP is trying to replicate Open Compute stuff with its "Gemini" system. Did a story on this called Gemini: HP's attempt to get a like from Facebook and friends - have a read
      Thanks for commenting
      Jack Clark
  • To think...

    Just how many pwnd suckers are overexposing themselves to the world on each of those disk drives. By the sled load! w00t
    • Exposed or warned?

      All I expose are the daily news issues, my political views and very clear expressions of how good my security system is, how deadly my guns are, and how good my aim is. (Think of it as an "anti-invitation" to criminals).

      No checking in, no vacation plans, no family drama, and no info about where I really live....
      Allen Frady
      • Hey not bad

        You are definitely ahead of the curve. ;)
  • Big Mess

    ""We're trying to take away a lot of the uniqueness of server design to create a clean, open canvas"
    Before trying, please clean up that lab and organize those wires.
    • They were a little embarrassed by the wires...

      Hey Rikkrdo,
      Actually Mat and Amir were rather apologetic about the clutter, but as it was a working lab it seemed like a certain amount of clutter came with the territory.
      Jack Clark