Is Open Compute a Game Changer?

Last week’s fourth Open Compute summit in Santa Clara was accompanied by a huge media buzz. More participants attended than ever before and an increasing number of vendors are jumping on the bandwagon. Why is it such a ‘big deal’ that specifications for hardware are openly available? Don’t we have enough contract manufacturers and large vendors to satisfy what the market need?

As Penguin’s CTO Phil Pokorny pointed out in his AMD guest blog motherboard designs are often a compromise. Customer requirements can be very specific. For manufacturers, removal of components and customization of motherboards is typically more expensive than supplying a ‘one size fits all’ boards with features that some customers don’t need or without features that some customers would like to see. Moreover motherboards are often radically optimized for cost. This can lead to compromises in power efficiency, reliability and specific features.

open compute mother board

The Open AMD 3.0 OCP design specifies a ‘bare bones’ motherboard that can be configured for different use cases. The platform was designed with the input of the financial services industry and is intended to provide a ‘universal, highly re-useable common motherboard that targets 70% to 80% of enterprise infrastructure’ (OCP Project AMD Motherboard Hardware). Even though designed based on feedback from Wall Street the server flavors (HPC, Storage, General Purpose) outlined in the specification are generally applicable and should cover a large percentage of use cases in any enterprise data center.

The design offers benefits on many fronts

Management: Having one motherboard design as a ‘common denominator’ in an enterprise data center simplifies system provisioning and system management as well as the management of an inventory of spare parts. OS images and drivers can be used across a wider range of servers.

Capital expense: The ‘bare bones’ design approach enables customers to pick and choose rather than ‘bundle purchase’ components that they don’t really need e.g. fully featured BMCs when only a subset of functionality is required. While these cost savings may seem small at the level of the individual server they add up in large scale and hyperscale deployments.

Economies of scale: With a higher level of standardization customers will benefit from better economies of scale.

Compatibility: OCP 1.0 servers deployed at Facebook were built to fit a custom rack design. OCP 2.0 designs were built to be compatible with the Open Rack specification. The Open AMD 3.0 reference design is compatible with industry standard 19’’ racks. While it makes sense to follow a “holistic design process that considers the interdependence of everything from the power grid to the gates in the chips on each motherboard.” (OCP Open Rack blog) compatibility with the 19’’ de-facto industry standard will drastically accelerate the main stream adoption of Open Compute Project server platforms.

The biggest benefit of the Open Compute Project though is its ‘openness’. It is quite likely that with OCP control over hardware designs will shift from large established vendors to a community of users and cooperating manufacturers. Analogous to the way Linux obliterated the market for ‘closed source’ UNIX implementations OCP has the potential to give established vendors a ‘run for the money’. The open design also provides a great opportunity for new players that can now build on existing open specifications and customize these specifications for specific market niches.

At Penguin we realize that OCP has the potential to turn the server market ‘upside down’. We are an active member of the OCP alliance and recently extended our Altus product line to include servers built according to version 3 of the OCP specification to our product portfolio. For Penguin Computing the bottom line is, “Yes, OCP is a game changer.”

BTW … If you want to know more about how OCP is expected to change the server market and how Penguin is embracing ‘open hardware’ … an insightful article based on an interview with our CEO Charles Wuischpard was just published by The Register.

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