Facebook Blows Up the Server Industry with New Open Source Hardware

Facebook's Open Compute initiative has gained some powerful allies

It may seem a bit strange, but Facebook has some serious hardware chops these days. It started with the open hardware server designs, but this year the company is doing one better and unveiling a new standard server design that should allow for much more modular servers and racks.

First and foremost, Facebook designed a new universal processor slot, there hasn't been one in decades. The really surprising thing is that the industry is behind it, Intel, AMD and a couple of ARM processor makers are involved.

Technically, it's not a processor slot but a system-on-a-chip one, based on the PCI-E standard.

This should enable companies to use any processor, from any vendor, with their motherboards. In fact, they can even mix and match them, put Intel processors alongside AMD ones, or, perhaps a better choice, alongside ARM-based ones.

Facebook has been working on this for a few years, but this is the biggest move yet. It even spun-off Open Compute as an independent non-profit which will continue working on interoperable standards and open hardware designs.

It may seem strange that Facebook, a software company, is the force behind it, but it makes sense, Facebook is not competing with any of the companies that got involved, it's one of their biggest customer in fact.

And, while Intel may hate working with AMD and Dell doesn't like the idea of servers built to open specs, they'd hate to lose Facebook and other companies like it even more.

It's a real threat too, started by Google. The company has been making its own servers for years and now runs completely custom hardware. It designs the servers, the enclosures, even the networking gear and hands off production to cheap China factories.

Facebook is running custom hardware as well. Smaller companies can't afford to do it yet, but the server industry doesn't want to wait until they do.

Google though keeps its hardware designs very close to its vest, while it touts openness when it comes to software and data, it's more secretive than Apple when it comes to hardware. Facebook is pretty much the other way around, it guards its data, but it open sources its hardware design.

In fact, the threat of a high-quality server blueprint that can be built by cheap manufacturers is what got the existing vendors all behind the Open Compute initiative.

It's still early days. During the Open Compute Summit IV, which is now underway, Facebook will unveil the new motherboard slot, dubbed the "Group Hug."

Intel is unveiling a new 100 Gbps chip that's designed to link up multiple servers on the same rack and in the same data center at speeds that make it possible to separate processors from memory, for example, and not create a bottleneck.

Facebook has also unveiled two new open source server designs, a web server like the ones it uses to run the site, and a new database server that relies entirely on flash-storage. This one is designed to go with a new 3.2 TB flash card, designed by Fusion-io, also being unveiled at the Open Compute Summit.

Overall, Facebook is breathing fresh air into the industry. It should result in lower cost for companies and more efficient computing which benefit users, customers, the companies themselves and even the hardware makers, in the end.

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