April 10, 2011

Is Facebook OpenCompute useful?

Facebook recently published OpenCompute, the specs for a standard set of data center building blocks that will supposedly help the entire industry. Is Facebook OpenCompute useful? Do the specs add anything new? And, do the specs reveal any of Facebook’s secret sauce?

Within OpenCompute, Facebook has published its server specs and data center specs. Server specs for both Facebook Intel motherboard and Facebook AMD motherboard are available with the servers running CentOS; Facebook’s Intel servers support Xeon 5500 and 5600 series cpu’s. Note, there are no specs for Facebook ARM server’s; ARM cpu’s are irrelevant in the server space and similarly no specs for Intel Atom based servers, which are outperformed by the Xeon servers.

A closer look shows that Facebook server specs are generic, there is nothing unique or special defined by Facebook and no Facebook secret sauce is revealed. Such generic server specs have been around forever. Intel rules the server space and the server specs are defined entirely by Intel Xeon cpu’s and chipsets. Any innovation of substance goes directly in Intel cpu’s and chipsets, and Intel is very aggressive in delivering such innovations, which results in generic server motherboard designs (as are Facebook’s) and generic chassis designs (as is Facebook’s).

Facebook motherboards biggest feature (and using a custom power supply does not count) – rewiring the traditional wake on LAN (WoL) signal to reboot the cpu and calling it a reboot on LAN (RoL) feature. RoL reboots a sleeping server remotely (instead of waking it like the WoL) and bring it to a clean state, again, nothing special here.

Similarly, Facebook Data Center specs are very generic.

So, why did Facebook publish these generic specs?  Was it to do good for the industry? Entice ODM’s to build Facebook servers or something else? The specs do not advance the state of the art, add anything innovative or reveal any of Facebook’s secret sauce, which lies in the software.

Facebook, at about 100,000+ servers installed, is a substantial but still small user of servers. At the data center level, Facebook’s data center peers are Google (1,000,000+ servers), Microsoft, Amazon, Yahoo, Apple, Intel and others. Each of the peers has large deployments of servers and already buys custom servers and data centers for their own need, they are unlikely to follow Facebook’s lead. And, with the large investments required, the data center club will continue to stay a small club. It is unlikely that OpenCompute will trigger new players to jump in and start building their own data centers.

OpenCompute specs, as published, are neither useful nor add anything new. Perhaps it is Facebook’s attempt to entice ODM’s (other than their current ones) to start building servers for them and lower Facebook server costs, an unlikely scenario as the ODM’s build only to orders and not just to specs. And, regardless, OpenCompute will only have a tiny (if any) impact on Facebook’s business, as the real cost of servers and data centers reside in the cpu and Intel always drives that.