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Share And Share Alike: The Open Compute Project

Facebook's become a social media giant since its inception in 2004. Nowadays, it seems nearly impossible to find someone who hasn't at least heard of it. But CEO Mark Zuckerberg isn't content with just social media. Facebook's going to expand into computer hardware.

Yes, you read that right. 

Facebook's New Data Center

Facebook's had engineers and employees hard at work on a new, energy efficient, multimillion dollar data center. It'll be the first one that the company actually owns- previously, it was just leasing space. This new data center is supposedly 38% more efficient than your run of the mill data center, and cost Facebook 24% less to build. (SFGate)

The data center has been completely custom-designed from the ground up by engineers, and is, as Facebook's coined it, "Vanity free".  That's not what's unique about their data center, though. I mean, really...we're always finding ways to lessen cost and improve efficiency, and a lot of companies custom-build their server hardware. It's just the way it's done.

"The Open Compute Project" 

What's unique is that, with only a few weeks left until the center opens, they've posted the server specifications and schematics of the data center online.

Well....so what, right? They posted something on the internet, big deal. Matter of fact, this is actually rather unprecedented. See, what Facebook's done is kick tradition in the teeth. How? To answer that, let's take a look at the big firms. Microsoft, HP, Dell, IBM....they're competitors, first and foremost. When it comes to data center design...it's all very covert. If you want to find out anything beyond common knowledge and you don't work for the industry giant you're trying to garner information on, well...good luck. you'll need it. 

Facebook wants to change that.

From Chuck Palaniuk's "Fight Club": This is what Heiliger's referring to.From Chuck Palaniuk's "Fight Club": This is what Heiliger's referring to."'It's time to stop treating data center design like Fight Club and demystify the way these things are built,' said Jonathan Heiliger, vice president of technical operations at Facebook" (The Register)

See, there's a very delicious irony in the construction of these super-secret operations centers.Even though the hardware is highly classified, even though the design of each server is a closely-guarded secret of the company that constructed it, most every server relies on open source software. For those of you who don't know...open source generally means free, and freely available to the public.(Technology Review)

They don't just want open source software. They want data center design as a whole to be open source. They want any company designing a data center to have a wide array of schematics and designs to choose from. This is the first step in a new initiative which they've coined the Open Compute Project.

The End Result

So....will Facebook's Open Compute Project lead to open source hardware any time in the foreseeable future? 

Timothy Morgan of The Register says "probably not"

The problem with server design is that, a lot of times, companies need to design their own servers to handle whatever task they've got in mind. The servers that power Google, for example, are vastly different from those which Blizzard uses for World of Warcraft, which in turn differ from Facebook's own servers. And the thing is, if you've spent millions of dollars custom-tailoring a server to fit your specific needs, you're not going to want to share your ideas with a rival- that could just give them a competitive edge that might well force you out of the picture. 

Further, there's a pretty glaring difference between open source software and hardware...making software doesn't cost any money at all. You can sit around and toy with code to your heart's content, and be no poorer for it. If you make a mistake, you can just delete the offending code and start over. Hardware, though....you're using real materials, which cost real money.

Facebook can do this because hardware design isn't their primary mode of income.  Other companies responsible for server and data center design likely aren't so lucky.

That's not to say what Facebook's doing here is futile. The cost and energy saving methods they're sharing could well improve server design as a whole. And hey, who knows? Maybe other companies will follow their example. At the very least, the information they've released certainly will "demystify" server design, and make things easier for all involved in the business.

And maybe that's all they intended to do all along.