Group seeks to open source data-center design

The Open Source Data Center Initiative wants to pool engineering resources that others can build on and implement

A new industry group is trying to apply open-source principles to the design and construction of data centers, which it says could accelerate the use of new technologies and increase competition in the industry.

The Open Source Data Center Initiative, announced this week, will act as a repository and test bed for mechanical and engineering advances in data-center design, which it hopes will be submitted by small engineering firms, graduate students doing research with federal grant money, and others.

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The group has enlisted a high-profile adviser in the form of Michael Manos, who used to run Microsoft's global data center operations and is now building Nokia's cloud infrastructure. His enthusiasm for the effort stems partly from what he sees as a lack of motivation among established engineering firms to rethink how data centers are built.

The data center industry is "dominated by a handful of large engineering houses" that are wedded to mechanical and engineering designs that are "largely considered proprietary," he said. Those companies don't have enough incentive to educate their customers about simpler, more standardized alternatives, he said.

"When you think of all the great things we've been talking about at data center conferences, about moving to greener designs and driving efficiency with new technologies -- a lot of that innovation is being held back because competition for those ideas is not out there," Manos said.

The group will also play an educational role, he said. It will publish real-world data about the cost of implementing projects, such as a fresh-air cooling system, so that customers have "more transparency" when making decisions.

Manos is helping to assemble a team of advisers, mostly from the end-user community, who will steer the group's research by highlighting common problems, particularly related to energy efficiency.

"We have been able to put together quite a team of industry heavyweights to get involved in this effort," he wrote in a blog post. "Those announcements are forthcoming, and when they [are made], I think you will get a sense of the type of sea-change this effort could potentially have."

The group was founded by Dave Ohara, a former engineer with Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Microsoft who now runs the Green Data Center Blog. He has partnered with the University of Missouri, which will provide administrative support, and ARG Investment, which is building a data center in Missouri where it says it will test some of the new technologies proposed.

The project is in its early stages and questions remain about how it will operate. To be successful, open-source projects need "pretty widespread participation," said Joe Polastre, CTO of Sentilla, which makes tools for monitoring energy use in data centers.

"One of my biggest questions is what will motivate people to open up and share what they are doing," he said.

One incentive to participate, Manos said, is that it will give smaller engineering firms access to a pool of engineering resources that could help them compete for business with more established players. "They can say, 'This is an open source, certified design, and here's an example of where it has been implemented before,'" he said.

Ohara said participation could help construction companies expand the role they play in new data-center projects, increasing competition. "If they had this knowledge and information, the construction industry guys could get involved in a project earlier on, versus being handed the drawings at the end and being told to go build it," he said.

Not surprisingly, large engineering firms reject the idea that they are holding back the industry. Bruce Edwards, president of CCG Facilities Integration, one of the largest engineering companies, said data centers have seen significant innovation in the last 10 years, in areas such as electrical power delivery and cooling.

"It's not like we're sitting there parceling out the work; we're at each others throats," he said.

He also questioned the need for another industry group. "The idea that a nonprofit, collaborative, noncompetitive model will be a powerful engine to drive innovation -- I'm not convinced of it at this point," Edwards said.

The alliance says it doesn't aim to compete with groups like the Green Grid Forum and the Uptime Institute, but that it is frustrated with the rate of progress.

"These groups have been out espousing best practices for years," Manos wrote in his blog. "They do a great job of highlighting the challenges we face, but for the most part have waited around for universal good will and monetary pressures to make them happen. It dawned on us that there was another way."

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