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ARCHITECHT Daily: LinkedIn's Open19 initiative is open source hardware for everybody else

LinkedIn officially launched the Open19 Foundation on Tuesday, formalizing and expanding what had pre
ARCHITECHT Daily: LinkedIn's Open19 initiative is open source hardware for everybody else
By ARCHITECHT • Issue #82 • View online
LinkedIn officially launched the Open19 Foundation on Tuesday, formalizing and expanding what had previously been an internal attempt to standardize data center infrastructure around a single rack design. LinkedIn’s partners in launching Open19 are Flex, GE Digital, HPE and Vapor IO, although the foundation also includes about two dozen other members from across the data center ecosystem.
The most obvious (two-part) question when you first hear about Open19—and one that I admit I asked publicly more than once—is, “Why does it exist? Why can’t LinkedIn just join the Open Compute Project and use its designs?” The answer, according to the three people I spoke with about Open19—all of whom were also intimately involved with OCP from its early days—is threefold: 
  1. OCP is more about sharing designs and best practices than it is about setting a standard.
  2. OCP’s designs aren’t particularly useful to smaller-scale purchasers. This has to do with buying power, as well as the fact that OCP designs favor a 21-inch-wide rack, rather than the standard 19-inch width.
  3. OCP, while popular, made some hardware manufacturers nervous at the prospect of having to give up their IP or competitive edge.
Those three people, by the way, were Yuval Bachar, Open19 president and principal engineer for global infrastructure architecture and strategy at LinkedIn; Curt Belusar, senior director of hyperscale engineering for the service provider business at HPE; and Cole Crawford, founder and CEO of Vapor IO.
Basically, Bachar explained, Open19 defines how the racks are built, how power and networking are done, and the form factor(s) of servers, but what’s inside those servers is up to the manufacturer. For manufacturers, this means they can take advantage of a low-cost, standard rack design, but can still try to distinguish themselves at the level where actual computing is done. Buyers get simplicity: a vast reduction in cables and the ability to easily swap in new components.
I think the buying-power aspect of Open19 is also interesting, in the sense that smaller data center operators can’t achieve the same economies of scale as a company like Facebook when it comes to buying custom gear from ODMs. If enough manufacturers and buyers rally around Open19, that should create a market where buyers, including LinkedIn, have plenty of viable off-the-shelf options to choose from.
Hypothetically, having a standard could also let smaller buyers “piggyback” on bigger buyers’ orders so everyone can get lower prices. Crawford noted that because OCP designs are so extensible and large buyers often include their own custom IP, it makes it impossible for anybody else to leverage those economies of scale. However, because the Open19 design is a standard, LinkedIn could, hypothetically, order 2,000 cages from an ODM and resell 200 to a smaller buyer at cost. They should all be exactly the same, and everyone should pay a lower price per unit.
If it seems like Open19 is making less of a splash than OCP did when it launched in 2011, that’s probably because custom hardware and open source designs aren’t particularly novel at this point. We’ve also 6 years to watch the cloud computing market mature, creating a barbell effect when it comes to infrastructure acquisition. On the one hand, you have mega web companies and cloud providers building their own stuff or using OCP designs, and on the other you have companies moving more and more workloads into those clouds. 
Presumably, Open19 adopters will be part of that shrinking middle—companies like LinkedIn, GE, and perhaps telcos, banks and large retailers—that are big enough to feel the pain of data center complexity and bespoke architectures, and also too big or too regulated to move entirely to the cloud.
Crawford, whose company focuses on managing edge computing deployments, thinks having a standard rack design will also make it easier for companies to manage large edge deployments. Many people predict edge computing is the next big thing, necessary for low-latency processing and data access for connected devices and machine learning tasks. A small, energy-efficient design is ideal for small real estate footprints at edge locations, and standard power and networking specs simplify the job for technicians who have to service the racks.
“Amazon has 4 data centers in America … We have to think about 40,000 data centers,” he said.
It’s also worth noting that there’s no real reason that OCP and Open19 couldn’t work together, or that manufacturers couldn’t apply certain OCP design elements to gear built to the Open19 specification. In fact, HPE is a member of both organizations, and LinkedIn parent company Microsoft is an active OCP member.
At this point, however, Bachar said LinkedIn and Microsoft are operating distinctly when it comes to data centers: “We’re continuing to develop our own data centers with our own technology.”
A note for the rest of this issue: There are quite a few links to academic artificial intelligence papers below. I blame it on the recent deadline for submissions to the NIPS conference (which, as I noted yesterday, appeared to strain the supply of cloud-provider GPUs.) I tried to pick the ones I think could have the biggest impacts; I probably missed some.

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Sponsor: DigitalOcean
Cloud and infrastructure
Media partner: GeekWire
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