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OCP making friends outside the Facebook data center

The Open Compute Project is like buying supermarket store brands -- you still get what you want without the high price in your data center.

Five years after the Open Compute Project first emerged in the data center, the open source hardware project started by Facebook is still best suited for friend requests from certain types of enterprises.

Facebook Inc.'s newest data center will use Open Compute Project (OCP) server and storage hardware, including the company's homegrown Yosemite for compute and fabric plus Wedge switches and 6-pack in the network stack.  The newest Facebook data center, the social network's second in Europe and sixth worldwide, is now under construction in Clonee, Ireland, outside Dublin.

OCP was created in 2011 as a way to "drive faster innovation by collaborating and sharing with the community," according to Omar Baldonado, co-lead of the OCP networking project and an infrastructure software engineering manager at Facebook in Menlo Park, Calif.

Hardware from OCP "is helping to reinvent the entire data center stack," including networking, servers, storage and racks, Baldonado said. The latest additions are switches from Mellanox Technologies, Accton Technology Corp. and Inventec Corp., plus the open top-of-rack network switch from Facebook called Wedge, which is in the new Facebook data center in Ireland.

Currently, OCP is attempting to "get new companies to participate from a wider variety of industries," Baldonado said. The OCP Telco Project includes AT&T Inc., Deutsche Telekom AG, EE Ltd., SK Telecom Co. Ltd. and Verizon Communications, all of which will participate in open hardware development in the telecom industry.

Bob Thurston, director of integrated engineering at Fidelity Investments in Boston, has been involved in OCP since its inception.

OCP and open means a little bit more do-it-yourself; but it is not as scary as people think.
Bob Thurstondirector of integrated engineering, Fidelity Investments

The financial benefits of OCP are clear, he suggested. "Adoption is the key right now; we are trying to get past the fear," he said. "It's the same fear about generic food in the grocery store," he said, because shoppers often feel confident going with the name brand while knowing that store brand likely offers exactly what they want at a lower price. 

There is still a need for a greater selection of "true OCP" hardware for the enterprise, Thurston added.

Users within the OCP community work with and support each other. In the financial services sector, Fidelity staff often confers with their IT counterparts at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Bloomberg L.P., for example, he said.

"OCP and open means a little bit more do-it-yourself," Thurston said. "But it is not as scary as people think."

Vendors work with OCP in certain cases and some of the hardware has maintenance contracts, Thurston said.

"If you have a data center, chances are you have enough technical knowledge to leverage this," Thurston said.

Financial services businesses are the largest non-Web services users of OCP, largely because they have large, scalable workloads, according to Richard Fichera, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

Most financial services companies are able to use OCP hardware to run derivatives and analytics processing, risk analysis and consumer-facing websites.

OCP works well for Fidelity, which runs huge, efficient world-class data centers, and wants "a lot of servers with a homogeneous workload," according to Fichera.

"You can build stripped down, minimal servers and do real work on them," he said.

In addition to financial services, OCP has found a place in seismic processing in oil exploration, where Fichera cited procurements for thousands of nodes in a single cluster. Another field where OCP has gained traction is with digital content creation companies -- for example, OCP was used for the 7,000 nodes required to create the special effects in the first Lord of the Rings movie, The Fellowship of the Rings.

One pixel OCP in action at southeastern
Facebook data center

The biggest roadblock is that many enterprises today may not have the framework and processes in place that work well with running OCP hardware, he said.

"You don't see people buying OCP servers unless they are buying a lot of them," Fichera said. "If you are buying a few hundred servers up to a thousand servers, it doesn't make sense."

The biggest challenge comes with networking, which Fichera calls "less mature" and more difficult to manage than servers.

"You can put OCP servers into Cisco networks," he said.

OCP hardware works best when there is "one big problem" to solve in an isolated domain, much like the Facebook data center, which runs an identified workload versus the variety that is more common in many enterprises.

All of the major vendors have cost-reduced, value servers designed to run the same workloads as OCP hardware. For example, Dell has its PowerEdge Cloud servers and Hewlett Packard Enterprise has its Cloudline servers in partnership with Foxconn Technology Group.

Web-scale, where OCP was born, is about "massive scalability" with tens of thousands of nodes and no downtime, according to Sheila Childs, managing vice president and analyst at Gartner.

"If Facebook was down for five minutes, that would be on the cover of every newspaper and website out there," she said. "Web-scale is absolutely no fault-tolerance."

Traditional, average and even large enterprises will not become like Facebook, she said, with its scale of API driven automation and monitoring with rapid development.

Childs said the question being asked by businesses looking at the petabytes of data they may have to analyze from the Internet of Things and business applications is whether a data center needs a web-scale environment.

"The answer is maybe, depending on what you are doing," she said -- but about 90% of enterprises will turn to public cloud for web-scale activity.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at  [email protected].

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