Facebook pushes a new model for buying servers

The company says its Open Compute Project will give customers more choice and flexibility in choosing servers

By , IDG News Service |  Data Center, Facebook, Open Compute Project

It fits into a standard server rack, something that already sets it apart from Facebook's own server design, which is for a custom rack. The AMD board includes its Opteron 6200 or 6300 processors, but it allows the customer to choose the I/O module and whether they want a SAS controller, said Bob Ogrey, AMD's "cloud evangelist" and the engineer who designed the board. It also implements a low-cost server management platform that AMD developed with Broadcom, he said.

Companies are testing the board now, and full production will begin at the end of the quarter, he said.

Matt Eastwood, an analyst with IDC, said it makes sense for companies that rely on IT for a competitive advantage to design their own servers. Big banks are willing to invest heavily in powerful systems to run their Monte Carlo simulation programs, for example, which are used to assess investment risk.

Facebook's model may also suit other companies for whom high-performance computing is essential, Eastwood said, such as pharmaceutical firms or companies that do oil and gas exploration.

Still, that's far from most of the world's big businesses. "You're probably talking about a few hundreds of companies" that have an incentive to make use of the Open Compute Project's designs, he said.

He also noted that while Facebook is talking about disaggregation, there's a trend in the industry in the opposite direction, with companies such as Oracle promoting highly integrated systems as a way to achieve maximum compute performance.

Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight64, was also skeptical that the Open Compute project is applicable outside large Internet and cloud service providers. "I'm not sure enterprises can benefit from it," he said.

Peter ffoulkes, an analyst with 451 Research, was more optimistic. "I think it will be relevant to any large company that wants to customize their data center to match their workload," he said.

Even large retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart, which may not appear to be technology-driven companies, do a lot of data analysis to uncover customer buying trends, he noted.

The top-tier server vendors don't want to be left out of the picture, and some said they'll support the Open Compute specifications in some products. Dell showed two prototype servers, for example, one with an x86 processor and one with an ARM processor, which were both running a server management platform developed through Facebook's project.

Jay Parikh, Facebook's vice president of engineering, said the move to more flexible systems couldn't come at a better time. Data volumes are so high, he said, that companies such as Facebook need to architect complex, custom storage systems to manage the load.

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