Facebook's war against the hardware establishment by Doug Mohney
Facebook upended data center design philosophy with its Open Compute initiative last year. The company is far from finished and is pushing a slew of ideas that may transform the entire hardware industry. I wonder just how far the company is willing to go.
It's no coincidence Facebook executives are making PR rounds this week. Senior Vice President of Infrastructure Frank Frankovsky is featured in Wired and GigaOm pieces. In those pieces, Frankovsky is touting the idea of redefining the whole role of servers and Ethernet switches, with switches almost literally coming the new network "hub." Current Ethernet switches will evolve to incorporate boot devices and act as network interface cards to "sleds" of CPU and memory.
Upgrading hardware becomes much easier for data center operators, with the ability to upgrade CPUs by simply pulling out old cards -- how retro! -- and dropping in new ones. You don't have to rip and replace server boxes just to get faster and/or more energy-efficient CPUs on line, you're simply swapping cards.
Frankovsky, according to the GigaOm piece, is all about building the next generation of data center hardware to operate efficiently over time and at scale. PC-based hardware focuses on the box. You want better features, you get rid of an old box and roll in a new one. For data center operators, this is expensive -- all they want is the next generation CPU, since the power supply, memory, and I/O are more than adequate.
It doesn't hurt that Frankovsky's vision would also end up being more green. Power supplies last for decades while memory and I/O can last for years, with Ethernet not ready to be scrapped in the next 10 years. So you're left with shipping smaller boards which means less energy to manufacture and ship from point A to point B.
Server hardware manufacturers no doubt think this idea sucks. Frankovsky and the other data center buyers have enough purchasing cloud to force the issue, but moving to a simplified hardware architecture will affect profit margins. Companies aren't shipping $2000 boxes every three years, but maybe $200 to $500 dollar boards.
The frightening part is if hardware manufacturers don't go down this road on their own, Facebook and other large site data center purchasers have enough cash sloshing around that they simply end up placing large orders directly with back-end OEMs to get what they want to the specs that they want. Or spin up a small start-up manufacturer to get them what they want. Cisco, Dell and HP would end up being cut out of the middle with a direct impact to the their respective bottom-lines.