Facebook letting Open Compute Project go. Will it fly?

The Open Compute battery cabinet.

The Facebook-led Open Compute Project launched a foundation Thursday to help it push the standardization of data center server hardware for webscale deployments. But as the project evolves it’s still hard to see where Facebook ends and Open Compute begins.

Leave the chassis to Open Compute and build something new.

The goal of the new Open Compute Foundation is to bring more vendors and voices into the mix, make sure their contributed intellectual property is well cared for, and to foster the idea that open-source development — so important in software — can benefit the stodgy world of data center servers. At the  Open Compute Project (OCP) launch in April, Facebook laid out building blocks for standard server designs. The idea is that other companies could build and innovate atop those designs and not waste time sweating the nuts and bolts.

“The main thing we want to achieve is accelerating the pace of innovation for scale computing environments and by open sourcing some of the base elements we will enable the industry in general to stop spending redundant brain cycles on things like re-inventing the chassis over and over and over and focus more on innovation,” Frankovsky said in an interview in advance of the foundation announcement. The effort will turn the data center, systems level and server hardware into commodity components designed for scaled out architectures.

The group has big backers with foundation directors including Silicon Valley superstar Andy Bechtolsheim who co-founded  Sun Microsystems and is now chief development officer of Arista Networks. Also on the board are Don Duet, head of global technology infrastructure for  Goldman Sachs (s GS);  Mark Roienigk, the COO of Rackspace (s RAX); and Jason Waxman, general manager of Intel’s (s INTC) data center group. Frank Frankovsky, Facebook’s director of hardware and supply chain, is executive director.

What’s inside Open Compute today and planned for tomorrow.

Along with the creation of the foundation, Facebook announced the Open Rack 1.0 specification, which lays out the basic design for power distribution and cooling for the server rack. That spec will evolve over time, integrating such perks as rack-level power capping, and I/O on the backplane at some point, Frankovsky said.

Also on Thursday ASUS said it will open-source its motherboard designs and Mellanox (s MLNX) plans to release specifications for 10 Gigabit Ethernet cards. So far the OCP effort has received intellectual property contributions from Red Hat (s RHT)– which will certify OCP servers. Other contributions came from AMD (s AMD), Dell (s Dell), and Cloudera. Arista Networks is also now an official member of OCP, although has no specific contributions to announce at this time.

The OCP  has also moved to make OCP hardware more broadly available, working with Synnex, a computer distributor and its manufacturing arm, Hyve, which will act as a hardware OEM. Silicon Mechanics, a maker of rack-mount servers, is also aboard. When the effort launched in April Dell and Hewlett-Packard (s HPQ) both showed off servers that incorporated some of the elements of Open Compute.

 Open Compute Foundation, born of Facebook, still pretty close

The Open Compute chassis.

The fact that a Facebook executive doubles as the foundation’s executive director is bound to raise some eyebrows if OCP wants to shake the perception that it is an effort directed by the social networking giant.  Other open-source projects, notably the Eclipse effort around Java development environments, really hit their stride only after the lead vendor relinquished control. (In Eclipse’s case, that was IBM (s IBM).) More recently, Rackspace eased some concerns among the OpenStack software crowd by forming an OpenStack Foundation, and vowing to step back.

“We modeled this as closely as possible on the Apache Foundation. Each project starts at an incubation committee which names a lead and [is eventually] voted in or out as a project,” Frankovsky said. “I have one-fifth vote. If the others don’t think it’s cool, it’s not in.”

Frankovsky said the effort is well-funded for now through voluntary seed contributions but the funding model remains a work in process.

What’s next for OCP?

As for what’s next? Frankovsky said the first round of motherboards were based on Intel’s Westmere chip technology while version two will be based on Intel’s Sandy Bridge technology. “Intel and Hyve will do a fast-ramp program,” he said.  OCP has worked to get early access to Sandy Bridge technologies that would otherwise not be available until the second quarter.

Andy Bechtolsheim of Arista Networks at Structure Big Data 2011 Facebook itself is working on some storage specifications it would like to  talk about for its next round of contributions. “Storing data at this scale has some unique challenges. We’ll work on those contributions and with the rest of the community on this,” he said.

The OCP remains focused on the compute platform itself, although Frankovsky didn’t rule out possible future forays into other parts of the data center universe.

Asked if networking was on the agenda, he said:  “Andy Bechtolsheim has a lot of interest in networking but for now we’ve excluded networking from Open Compute. There’s already ONF [the Open Networking Foundation] and we don’t want to compete, but if the community thinks we should look at the physical layer of Open Compute, that’s a possibility.”