Every IT organization is on a continuous search for ways to become more efficient and lower costs. For more than a decade, large “hyperscale” buyers of IT equipment (think web giants like Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, etc.) have set the gold standard for deploying the most efficient datacenters on the planet, and the whole world of IT has been watching. For many years, the details of how these hyperscale buyers achieved these efficiencies were kept secret and considered valuable IP to differentiate against their competitors. But in 2011, Facebook decided to open the kimono about the IT infrastructure they were using in their datacenters by developing the Open Compute Project (OCP) which they co-founded with Intel, Rackspace Hosting and Goldman Sachs Group.
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The goal of OCP was to share best practices in design efficiencies via open standards to help IT organizations lower costs. In addition, the group had a vision to deliver hyperscale-inspired design practices to the masses, like mainstream enterprise IT and smaller-scale service providers. Over the years, other leading hyperscalers joined OCP like Microsoft, Apple and more recently, Google. In addition, financial services organizations and telecomm providers have jumped on the OCP bandwagon to collaborate on designs for their industry specific needs. Leading vendors like Dell and Hewlett Packard Enterprise have also beefed up their efforts to bring hyperscale-inspired infrastructure to a broader set of users, due in part to the demand for more efficient designs driven by the OCP community. Jimmy Pike and I recently published a paper detailing the history of OCP and how it has impacted the industry. (You can download our full paper here).
I have attended almost every OCP Summit (the annual meeting of the OCP community) over the years and seen the community explode in growth and evolve to include more user groups and interested participants. The OCP Summit is one of the premier datacenter hardware events out there today. The OCP community has done an impressive job in creating awareness and inspiration of the benefits of cost-optimized, efficient IT hardware, but delivering OCP-based solutions to mainstream IT buyers is a lot harder than it sounds. In many ways, OCP was modeled after the open source software community. But there are a lot of differences between open hardware and open software including economies of scale models, design costs, logistics & manufacturing complexity and dependence on vendor IP & implementations. These differences have led to some of the hurdles in delivering on the promise of open hardware for OCP. Despite the strong participation from a “who’s who” of hyperscale computing, the size of the actual OCP footprint in datacenters around the world remains relatively small, with a limited number of organizations embracing OCP today in their production scale deployments. Below are 3 reasons why we think OCP is not meeting the demands of mainstream enterprise IT.
1. OCP community contributions have caused a fragmentation in standards
In reality, what works for one company does not always work for the next. Many industry leaders have contributed their own unique designs to OCP resulting in fragmentation in specifications, lack of supply chain efficiencies and confusion from the market over what OCP hardware really is. In 2015, the OCP Foundation stepped in to help with a set of standards that attempt to distinguish what is and is not OCP hardware. But the current standards process appears to be in its infancy and not yet a useful metric for buying OCP-based hardware.
2. An OCP specification is just one small piece of the puzzle
Delivery models for open source initiatives are fundamentally different for hardware and software, with many additional complexities associated with hardware. OCP delivers a set of specifications, but it is up to the manufacturer to do the remaining design work and to handle component procurement, manufacturing & logistics, testing & certification and maintenance & support. End users who have relied on the traditional datacenter hardware supply chain for design, manufacturing and ongoing support are not well-staffed to take on these steps. Such customers will rely on their independent hardware solution provider to lead them through building and deploying OCP hardware.
3. The OCP supply chain is not set up to service mainstream IT customers
Almost every major vendor in the server space has claimed to develop an OCP-based design, but few are shipping significant volume of OCP hardware today. Most of the vendors who sell OCP hardware have business models optimized for organizations like hyperscale and HPC users who have large internal engineering support staff of their own. Due to the nature of their historical business models, many OCP solution providers have limited sales, service and support capabilities compared to tier 1 global OEM vendors. Mainstream enterprise IT and service providers accustomed to working with global OEM vendors may find that OCP solution providers have insufficient warranty support, field service capabilities and staff to deal with technical issues.
A lot of good has come out of OCP, but there is more work to do to close the gaps. And what is right for Facebook and other hyperscalers is not necessarily right for a smaller scale datacenter. There are other avenues to consider for those looking to move to open, cost-optimized design principles that may address some of the shortcomings seen with OCP today. Some of the specialty vendors who sell OCP hardware have broader portfolios that may be a better fit for organizations outside the hyperscale category. Also, large global vendors like Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Lenovo have business lines that provide hyperscale-inspired designs that come with the service and support needed for many mainstream enterprise IT organizations and smaller service providers.
For a deep dive on how the Open Compute Project has inspired the industry and areas where delivery must continue to improve to become valuable for mainstream IT organizations, download our paper here.