The Open Compute Foundation: Parsing the politics

The Open Compute Foundation’s new board of directors includes big names from Intel (s INTC) and (of course) Facebook. It does not include a big name from AMD (s AMD). The Open Compute Project itself, formed last April, so far includes Dell (s Dell) but no other big server vendors such as Hewlett-Packard (s HPQ).

Who’s on and off the board, who’s aboard and not aboard the project, is a matter of interest to data center experts who follow the project’s attempt to foster standard data center servers for scale-out cloud computing.

The Open Compute Project (OCP)  notion of standard, pre-specified server designs has to worry companies like HP, IBM (s IBM) and Oracle (s ORCL). They all sell lots “value-added servers” for which they charge additional costs. The project says third-party hardware companies can innovate atop its hardware stack, but for years these companies have promised standards support and interoperability while also claiming that their own components integrate better with their other components than with outside components.

Hardware companies conflicted on OCP

HP, for example, wants to sell more higher-margin converged data center hardware  that melds compute, storage and networking gear. Dell, with its storage and networking acquisitions, also seems headed in that direction. Oracle’s Exadata and Exalogic proposition is that the value lies in Oracle software integrated with Oracle compute, storage and networking hardware. That’s a classic scale-up vs. scale-out battle. The Open Compute Project is decidedly in the scale-out camp. (Although, to be fair, both HP and Dell also offer commodity scale-out servers, covering both sides of this scale-out/scale-up debate.)

The OCP’s push for standard server-and-chassis design could level the playing field for white box makers like Hyve, the manufacturing arm of Synnex (s SNX), a computer distributor that was also at the event. If the guts of a server are all mapped out, why not buy from a white box provider instead of a name-brand manufacturer? Facebook, after all, did just that for its new Prineville, Ore., data center — the one highlighted at the Open Compute launch in April — that runs custom servers, the design of which it’s trying to propagate via the project.

Dell’s Jimmy Pike, chief architect and technologist for Dell’s Data Center Solutions (DCS) unit, who got a prime speaking slot at the OCF event, said “custom platforms can be great, but can be the enemy of interoperability.” (He also noted that if anyone at the event wanted to buy a Dell server, he had an order book on hand.)

That’s why the new foundation is interesting. HP made noise in April about adopting OCP principles, but doesn’t seem to have a seat at the big boy table. Dell does seem to. Oddly, though, Open Compute has not published a full membership list on its website, although it promises one soon.

According to last week’s blog post announcing the foundation board, the project will:

release a full list of the Project’s first set of official members soon, but some examples include hardware suppliers like Intel, ASUS (s, Dell, Mellanox (s MLNX), and Huawei; software suppliers like Red Hat (s RHT), Cloudera and Future Facilities; enablers like DRT, Hyve (Synnex), Nebula, Baidu, and Silicon Mechanics; consumers like Facebook, Mozilla, Rackspace, Netflix, NTT Data, Tivit, the ODCA, and Goldman Sachs.

OCP: Who’s in, who’s out

What we do know now is that Frank Frankovsky, Facebook’s director of hardware, leads the board as executive director. The other board members are Andy Bechtolsheim, chief development officer and co-founder of Arista Networks; Don Duet, head of global technology infrastructure for Goldman Sachs (s GS); Mark Roienigk, COO of Rackspace (s RAX); and Jason Waxman, general manager of Intel’s Data Center Group. And at last Thursday’s event announcing the board, Dell had a very public role. No one from HP spoke.

“You have to see who’s in and who’s out to see where this is going,” said one data center professional who attended the event. He did not want to be quoted because he works with these companies.

“There’s a lot of maneuvering going on and a lot of politics [in this effort],” he added. “You have to look who’s in and who’s out. I would say Dell is in so HP is not. Intel is in so AMD is not.” Companies on the inside — like Dell and Intel — are in good positions if the Open Compute Project takes off. Companies on the outside? Not so much, he said.

Some of the other board members also intrigued the data center expert. “The most interesting thing to me is that Don Duet from Goldman Sachs is on the board. That shows the degree of big-company interest in this work,”  he said. Duet is the managing director in charge of Goldman Sachs’ technology infrastructure.

The fact that Facebook launched Open Compute and a Facebook executive now leads the foundation board is problematic for some onlookers who don’t like to see open-source projects dominated by a particular vendor. If the project is to succeed at bringing open-source community development principles to hardware, it can’t be seen to be driven by a single player, or even a select few players.