Google, Facebook, and open-source hardware

Mar 10, 2016, 3:59 PM EST
Virginia tech - data center. (Source: Christopher Bowns/flickr)
Virginia tech - data center. (Source: Christopher Bowns/flickr)

Google has historically championed open source technology. Android is the most popular operating system on the planet, and Google’s other open source projects have established a culture of welcoming any and all developers to change and improve its software. Now, it enters the hardware game — something Facebook has headlined for several years. While Google has been on board with Facebook’s Open Compute Project for a while, the company has announced it is participating in a more specific way by contributing a new rack specification. 

The OCP is an initiative to break the old world mold of the data center, and to allow various companies to create open rack designs. It has a few goals, one of which is creating energy efficient IT infrastructure. The initiative also explores open-source hardware, software-defined networking, and data center infrastructure that is more customizable for a company’s needs. Indeed, the project launched after Facebook created its own data center a few years ago. OCP has attracted the participation of companies including Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Cisco, Juniper, and Lenovo, among others. Google’s current collaboration will include contribution of “a new rack specification that includes 48V power distribution and a new form factor to allow OCP racks to fit into our data centers,” according to the company’s blog.

The IT and data center worlds have been plagued by vendor-specific hardware that can be expensive and fixed, meaning the end-user company cannot customize the hardware for its needs. Google will add its own designs, pooling resources with the aforementioned companies to broaden the world of IT architecture. It wrote:

“As the industry's working to solve these same problems and dealing with higher-power workloads, such as GPUs for machine learning, it makes sense to standardize this new design by working with OCP. We believe this will help everyone adopt this next generation power architecture, and realize the same power efficiency and cost benefits as Google.”

Open Compute has launched a few branches of its initial project, including unveiling its first system-on-a-chip compute server last year, debuting efforts to define an open network switch, and working on customizing switches to accommodate the OpenFlow protocol — an enabler of software-defined networking. It is a long road to upending the traditional forms of IT infrastructure, but with all the big names Facebook has garnered behind its OCP, the next generation of the data center is at hand.