Microsoft shakes up server designs with Project Olympus

Microsoft's next wave of contributions to the Open Compute Project invites speedier collaboration and revision of OCP hardware

Microsoft shakes up server designs with Project Olympus
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Microsoft's latest contribution to Facebook's Open Compute Project -- a forum that allows big names in IT to share datacenter hardware designs with minimal licensing restrictions -- not only introduces a new server design, it also changes the way the designs are conceived and submitted, as well as their collaboration process.

Microsoft plans to share designs with the OCP as early as possible in the design process.

The incompleteness theorem

Microsoft's Project Olympus involves "contributing our next generation cloud hardware designs [to the OCP] when they are approx. 50% complete -- much earlier in the cycle than any previous OCP project," Microsoft said in a post on the official Azure blog.

Microsoft's rationale for sharing an incomplete design is that "open source hardware development is currently not as agile and iterative as open source software. ... By sharing designs that are actively in development, Project Olympus will allow the community to contribute to the ecosystem by downloading, modifying, and forking the hardware design just like open source software."

One of OCP's original benefits was a faster design process, and some of the products Microsoft has been experimenting with seem to demand a shorter iteration cycle. Consider Microsoft's recent foray into using FPGAs to accelerate datacenter operations. The overall layout of a system board that implements FPGAs may change only slightly, but the manner in which an FPGA is integrated into the whole could change a great deal. Sharing each interim iteration might inspire others to take the path less traveled.

Azure or not Azure?

Microsoft's pitch for Project Olympus -- both the most recent incarnation of the hardware and the project itself -- focuses mainly on products for Microsoft's own datacenters. "[Microsoft's] initial contributions were server and datacenter designs that power the Azure hyperscale cloud," Microsoft said.

With any talk of Azure cloud hardware, you'll likely find discussion of Azure Stack, Microsoft's hybrid cloud system that deploys Azure's bits in a private cloud via certified partner hardware. But Olympus is not intended to influence design decisions for Azure Stack -- at least not directly. The two projects were conceived separately and with discrete aims. When asked if the two projects would have any connection, a Microsoft spokesman said that "today, there is no overlap between Project Olympus and Azure Stack."

However, there's nothing that says Microsoft's hardware partners couldn't take cues from Olympus, either for their certified Azure Stack creations or anything else they come up with. As Microsoft's spokesperson said, "[Microsoft] intends for Project Olympus to become the foundation for a broad ecosystem of compliant hardware products developed by the OCP community, including something that Microsoft partners could build on."