What The Open Compute Project Means To Me

It has been just over a year since Facebook shook up the server hardware and data center industry by releasing its custom high efficiency infrastructure designs to the world. Rather than simply showcase its accomplishments, the Facebook team chose to formulate a new open source project seeded with the results of its efforts. Thought leaders including Johnathan Heliger, Frank Frankovsky, Yael Maguire, Amir Michael, Gio Coglitore and others rallied efforts producing design specifications and forming a collaborative working community of consumers and contributors that would ultimately culminate in the creation of the Open Compute Foundation, an entity to manage the Open Compute Project (OCP).

As a principal engineer with Rackspace I have had the good fortune to be involved with these efforts since the launch. Prior to our involvement with OCP, I had been part of a team tasked with development of our next generation data center strategy. Our prior pursuits had been tinged with the desire to develop infrastructure designs built upon distinctive intellectual property providing the basis for a competitively differentiated solution.

From the inception of the project, our leaders recognized the philosophical synergy between Open Compute and our OpenStack pursuits and willingly embraced the open source attributes of OCP. Further, they recognized that the collaboration and innovative spirit of Open Compute had the potential to elicit positive outcomes for a much wider audience. I was quickly swept off into activities geared to shape Open Compute designs for Rackspace consumption. Further, the open and collaborative nature of the project presented the opportunity to redefine Rackspace infrastructure requirements in lockstep with our customers, peers and even industry competitors.

With the next design summit (May 2 through May 3 at Rackspace’s San Antonio headquarters) rapidly approaching I want to take a few moments to reflect on some of the perspectives and tenets that form the “why of Open Compute” from a contributor and consumer perspective. 

Collaboration.  ‘Offset and magnify each others talents’

Here at Rackspace we place considerable value on the inherent capabilities of an individual. Internally, roles and opportunities are aligned with the strengths of the “Racker” (Rackspace employee) and tools such as StrengthsFinder are used to guide individuals in opportunistic use of their talents. Likewise, Open Compute sets the scene for such behavior on a grander community or multi-organizational scale.

Broad collaborative pursuits in data center design and implementation can help to insure that innovative principles are not confined in unnecessarily differentiated competitive bubbles. Teams can focus on areas of key expertise by building upon the contributions of others, minimizing unnecessary iteration in areas where problems have already been solved.

I have been amazed at the openness and excitement with which requirement and design discussions are embraced by this community. Even as I write this, new avenues of partnership and contribution are formulating. This does not mean, however, that the seats are full.  We are just getting started. We need and welcome participation and perspective.

Efficiency.  ‘Design philosophy, vanity free – well beyond PUE’

Amir Michael, one of the founding architects of Open Compute described the platform as “Vanity Free.” I found this description and design philosophy particularly appealing. The reductive, function first approach illustrated throughout the OCP project helps to engender a keen focus on value.

To me, the mantra “Vanity Free” is in many ways synonymous with “Value First.”  I see this philosophy also representative of the overall focus on efficiency. In the data center world, we often equate efficiency with metrics such as reduced power usage effectiveness (PUE) or optimized power supply output. Appropriate focus on such critical metrics is paramount, and Open Compute demonstrates leadership in both areas.

OCP and Vanity Free design, however, opened up a new and broader focus arena for me where attributes ranging from raw material selection and manufacturing yield complement considerations around assembly activities and shipping weight. The application of simple, functionally aligned and ground up efficiency principles in a holistic fashion is already helping my team uncover new areas of opportunity and value.

Innovation.  ‘New opportunities for real innovators’

Some have asserted that the open source nature of OCP platform design pursuits will culminate in a “race to the bottom.” In this argument, it is feared that any distinctive contribution will be quickly commoditized across a diverse fulfillment pipeline compromising the opportunity for those with innovative contributions to profit reasonably from their efforts.

Alternatively, it is my belief that OCP opens up new opportunities for real innovators to distinguish themselves and their contributions. Yael Maguire, John Kenevey, Frank Frankovsky and others have spent considerable effort rationalizing the licensing framework and have produced a model that provides what I view to be a vehicle for deep innovation into the very building blocks that comprise the resources we will consume. It is true that our lens will be keenly focused on value-oriented, distinctive differentiation. Ideally this focus will help us put a stop to what I often term the revolving door of “me too innovation” or in Andy Bechtolsheim’s terms “gratuitous differentiation” around our products.

Here, aligned design principles (simplicity/vanity free/value driven) mesh with the collaborative nature of the community to set the scene for an environment where innovators may both profit and thrive. For this to take shape, we need activity often and early from contributors and consumers alike. This involvement will help to insure that community requirements and road maps are well rationalized, that innovators are plugging in to solve real problems and that design frameworks are formulated to incorporate distinctive modules where sensible.