Should IT Vendors Fear the Open Compute Project?

FEB 10, 2014

Should IT Vendors Fear the Open Compute Project?

Mark A Campbell, Trace3
February 10, 2014

Hey, what is the Open Compute Project (OCP)? OCP is a YAOST (“Yet Another Open-Source Thingme” – my term). Spear-headed by Facebook, OCP aims to provide open specifications for how to build all the stuff people stick in data centers. A bit ambitious for sure, but since its 2011 launch, a large OCP community has grown up around the concept of stripping down infrastructure components to their bare rudiments and reaping lower costs.

Why are OCP products cheaper? As an example, the x86 OCP server is 24% cheaper and draws 38% less power than its traditional counterpart because it strips out all unnecessary accoutrements like sexy faceplates, custom brackets and unused/unwanted proprietary applications and agents. One Facebook study found that faceplates alone require an extra 28 watts per rack just to pull cooling air through.

OK, but what does OCP make? Well, just specifications, really:

  • Servers & Motherboards – Both x86 & ARM
  • Storage – Cold storage, high density, flash and high capacity variants
  • Racks – with massive intra-rack data rates and scaling
  • Data Centers – Facebook just built one in Oregon with a 1.07 PEU!
  • Networking – small, cheap and wicked fast top-of-rack switch

Many vendors are providing “whitebox” products built to OCP specifications for VM farms, VDI, Hadoop, cold storage and bulk cloud capacity.

What are the challenges to OCP? An OCP customer has to work with a posse of smaller whitebox cowboys as opposed to just calling in Sherriff Big Blue.

Once the equipment arrives, there is additional rack and cable work.

Since OPC was born out of the hyper-scaled world, its design decisions lean towards providing greater efficiencies at larger scales which reduces savings when implemented in smaller enterprises.

There are also questions of support, compatibility and OCP compliance with whitebox vendors. With a traditional vendor you pay more but get a handy 1-800-WRING-MY-NECK number in case something breaks or doesn’t meet specs. Not necessarily so with some whitebox vendors.

So why are companies adopting OCP? The number of adopters is growing steadily as OCP becomes a mainstream approach to commoditized infrastructure. Many of the obstacles to OCP adoption are being overcome:

  • The “some assembly required” labor is decreasing as richer pre-fab bundling options evolve.
  • Even the “one neck to wring” support issue is being avoided as many OCP adopters switch to a “ready spares” model instead of the traditional support contract, saving them even more.
  • OCP has a list of approved vendors and is creating a certification program to guarantee whitebox products adhere to the OCP specifications (there is a job opening on their site for a Director of Certification – know anyone?)

Adopters are also using OCP as a catalyst for co-migrations such as physical to virtual, Windows to Linux and monolithic databases to virtual open-source alternatives.

Should vendors be afraid? The honest answer is the old consultants’ favorite – “Well, it depends”.

Some traditional vendors are jumping on the bandwagon and they will likely do well working both sides of the fence.

Still other specialty products, like core switches, backup servers, and specialized security devices, are currently outside the scope of OCP – but the keyword is “currently”. Longer term OCP plans could target these areas as well.

Today’s traditional vendors are not too worried about OCP. But this could change quickly for one simple reason; OCP allows customers to disrupt big vendor lock-in! Big IT vendors who have been “buying the stack” are raising the ante with their customers when ELA time comes around. OCP provides a very powerful stack of poker chips that innovative IT departments can use to re-raise the pot-odds back in their favor. Expect them to use it.

It is still early days and things are changing fast – two recent examples; IBM dumped its x86 server business due projected margin pressure from competition like OCP and ever-proprietary Microsoft just joined OCP and added their cloud server specs to the fray. So this will be a fun game to watch in the coming months. Keep an eye out for future blogs on OCP.

Footnote: Every OCP blurb ever written has felt obligated to mention OCP’s thought leader, Frank Frankovsky. I am no different. If you don’t know him, do a quick search and check out his 1974 Dennis Ritchie-esque beard – a good omen methinks.

If you don’t know who Dennis Ritchie is, well then … just grep –ir “Ritchie” * | sort

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