Are Cheaper and More Efficient Servers on the Horizon?

Google’s decision to join the Open Compute Project could herald improvements in servers, and the OCP might deliver long-term benefits to businesses.

As more corporate and customer data is sent through data centers around the world, companies large and small that send and store it are more reliant on power-efficient and scalable servers. Google’s decision last month to join an open-source consortium known as the Open Compute Project (OCP) may signal that energy-saving, more powerful and cheaper servers could be available to businesses in the years ahead.

The OCP, a group Facebook co-founded in 2011, is designed to spur rapid innovation in server design by enabling its members to share best practices and produce industry standards. The group now has three dozen companies as members, including Bank of America, Cisco, Ericsson, Goldman Sachs, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and WiWynn.

“In designing commodity hardware that is more efficient, flexible, and scalable, we’re redefining tech infrastructure,” the OCP says as part of its mission statement. “Together, we’re throwing off the shackles of proprietary, one-size-fits-all gear.”

Kuba Stolarski, research director with IDC's worldwide computing hardware and platforms team, told BizTech that it will probably be several years before OCP’s innovations trickle down from what he calls “hyperscalers” to enterprises and small-to-midsize businesses. Hyperscalers include companies like Alibaba, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft that need robust and scalable cloud platforms. Yet over time, perhaps in the next five years or sooner, the broader business community could start to benefit, Stolarski says.

“I think the goal is to make this a fairly broad community,” he says, so that the innovations the OCP produces “could be picked up by any solutions provider and could be packaged for end-consumer use.” Eventually, he says, that will help SMBs and enterprises that are not part of the OCP.

Google’s Contribution to OCP

Google contributed designs for a 48-volt server rack — the enclosure for several servers — to the OCP. The search giant has been working on the design since 2010 and says it is 30 percent more power-efficient than previous models, which used 12-volt racks. Google is still not revealing everything about its server designs, but it wants to aid others working on servers.

“Our goal was to say, ‘Here are things we really believe are good for the industry,’” Urs Hölzle, a senior vice president of technical infrastructure at Google, told Bloomberg News. “It’s an opportunity to standardize.”

Hölzle says that “the open-source movement is great for things that are kind of non-competitive where everyone benefits from a standardized solution, but it’s not core to any one of our businesses.”

A Google spokesperson told TechCrunch the company wants to look into “additional OCP project areas for future engagement, such as management software, and storage disk drives for hyperscale computing.”

Google joined, according to Stolarski, because its 48-volt design was not going to be widely adopted otherwise, and that contributing it to the OCP will lead to more companies using it and lower costs over time.

Long-Term Benefits to Server Makers and Buyers

Indeed, the goal of the OCP is to save money for companies that purchase large numbers of servers by creating new standards for server hardware designs through open-source collaboration, and then taking advantage of economies of scale to drive down costs.

Facebook has “saved billions of dollars” thanks to OCP designs, Jay Parikh, the company’s vice president of engineering, told Bloomberg.

“It allows all the vendors to produce something that they know can be consumed by Facebook or Goldman Sachs or Yahoo or whoever else is in that space,” Hölzle told The Wall Street Journal.

Stolarski says the OCP appeals to hyperscalers because data centers are “really the backbone” of their business. “They want to invest in as efficient an operation as they can — highest performance, lowest cost.”

He says one example of an OCP innovation was that it made a 21-inch server rack that, thanks to less metal on the sides, is as wide as a 19-inch rack and can therefore fit two more inches of hardware for computing or storage.

For the OCP’s work to filter down to enterprises and SMBs, Stolarski says, “The project itself needs to reach a certain level of critical mass to one degree with contributors and then consumers as well.”

Stolarski says that if large manufacturing firms like GE join the OCP and it becomes less a community of cloud service providers, that might signal that innovations will trickle down to a wider range of companies.

“At some point, some of these technologies and solutions might trickle down anyway,” he adds. “Some members are server vendors anyway.”

The OCP innovations could bleed into proprietary solutions that are trying to compete and lead to a more competitive environment for servers overall, he says.

The long-term goal is to get more-efficient and cost-effective servers for data centers, Stolarski says. “In the long run, that benefits any data center operator,” he says.

kynny/ThinkStock
Apr 18 2016

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