4 ways the Open Compute Project will impact hardware design

Facebook's Open Compute Project could have broad influences, beneficial and baneful, on data center hardware

Much of the discussion about the Open Compute Project has centered on its impact on Facebook -- that is, how much money and energy it saved -- or on the contributions of the directly participating companies (such as Microsoft).

But as more hardware makers start offering OCP-inspired designs, it's worth reflecting on how that might influence what and how manufacturers produce hardware for the data center. Here are four possible ways the OCP might influence what they do.

OCP effect No. 1: Faster iteration between designs

Product cycles originate with the creator, not the consumer. For the data center, this means change is locked all the more closely to the whims of the hardware makers, rather than the folks who assemble and use the data center.

With OCP designs, though, the iteration process isn't locked to any one manufacturer. If a brilliant new idea appears in data center design, it theoretically becomes easier to put it into play and see how it holds up under real-world loads -- not just because of OCP hardware, but also due to OCP design-sharing methodologies.

This may be doubly important for the promised wave of ARM-based server designs (whether from Microsoft or others) set to be added to the OCP hardware arsenal. The more standardized the overall design, the easier it ought to be to offer new iterations of the system-on-chip designs found at the heart of such servers.

OCP effect No. 2: Consistency of designs

Consider this the flipside of the first point. The OCP's reference designs make it theoretically easier for a data center's hardware to be consistent and to avoid the arbitrary discontinuation or gratuitous changes that can creep into a given vendor's offerings. (For example: Why did my blade suppliers suddenly change to that vendor of storage controller?)

During his time on stage at the Open Compute Summit, ARM CMO Ian Drew made the point that differentiation for its own sake was never worthwhile. He was referring specifically to how ARM was, per the point mentioned above, preparing to offer standardizations in its server designs to allow innovation to happen "at the right layer," as he put it. This strategy appears to apply in a wider context to the other choices made by those building the data center.

OCP effect No. 3: Competiton between vendors

Another claimed OCP boon: The designs allow multiple vendors to create identical hardware, which gives the folks building the data center greater latitude between suppliers. As a result, the competition between such vendors stands to become not about feature sets, but other factors: reliability, support, or maxing out the oft-touted power efficiency of the OCP designs.

What's worrisome is whether or not this will simply spark a new race to the bottom among OEMs, as they compete to see who can pump out the cheapest OCP-compliant design without going broke. That would amount to trading the problem of a too-heterogenous market with another and possibly far more intractable conflict.

In the best of worlds, each manufacturer would find a special sauce to add that wouldn't break OCP consistency. There are some hints of safeguards: the creation of the OCP Solution Providers group, the OCP certification process, and so on. But it remains to be seen how those work out in reality.

OCP effect No. 4: Fallout from OCP licensing models

The OCP's licensing model is set to be expanded so that it includes a more GPL-like license alongside a more "permissive" version, in the hopes that having both will attract a broader segment of hardware makers.

What'll be interesting to see play out, apart from who contributes and to what end, is whether the choice of licensing becomes a reflection of a given company's motives for participating overall. Perhaps those who opt for the more permissive licensing will do it to broaden their reach because they can afford to lose hardware sales to a competitor -- especially if hardware sales aren't their main profit driver.

When InfoWorld's Eric Knorr wrote about Open Compute back in 2012, he was skeptical at first of the project, assuming it amounted to Facebook exercising its leverage over OEMs. But he found reasons to believe OCP would ultimately be about more than Facebook alone. Here's hoping it doesn't just become about the hardware makers alone, either.

This article, "4 ways the Open Compute Project will impact hardware design," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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