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Open source datacentre hardware helps Facebook save costs, energy

Archana Venkatraman

Facebook has reduced costs by 24% and increased IT energy efficiency by 38% since it started using open source hardware systems in its datacentres, according to Frank Frankovsky, vice-president of hardware design and supply chain operations at the social media company.

The open source systems are based on the Open Compute Project, which was initiated in April 2011 by a small group of Facebook engineers looking for ways to scale the company’s computing infrastructure in the most efficient and economical way possible.

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It now has more than 1,500 participants, and includes names such as Rackspace, Intel, AMD, EMC, VMware, HP, Dell, ARM and Goldman Sachs, among others developing core standards in energy-efficient hardware.

Facebook’s main Prineville datacentre, which began operations in April 2011, uses Open Compute servers and has achieved a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.07. “The industry gold standard for PUE is 1.5, but our datacentres yield 1.07 PUE, putting them among the most energy-efficient datacentres in the world,” said Frankovsky.

The company recently opened its European datacentre in Lulea, Sweden, and nearly all of the technology in the facility, from the servers to the power distribution systems, is based on Open Compute Project designs. This facility also yields a PUE of 1.07.

Open source hardware can be shared and improved

Storage is one of Facebook’s biggest challenges and the company wanted hardware systems that would help its IT address the challenge in a cost-efficient and energy-efficient manner, according to Frankovsky.

“We wanted ‘vanity-free’ hardware designs that are highly efficient and leave out unnecessary bits of metal and plastic,” he said.

Frankovsky hopes that open source datacentre hardware will have a widespread effect on datacentre costs and efficiency as more enterprises adopt it.

Open source software and hardware will also democratise access to the best server, storage and datacentre technologies available, he said.

“The Open Compute initiative is a user-led project with a focus on open technologies that can be multi-sourced," said Frankovsky.

Traditionally, datacentres purchase and use a large number of inexpensive general-purpose servers leading to “hardware sprawl”, which in turn requires a higher amount of power and cooling. Facebook, through Open Compute, designs its own energy-efficient servers and develops new solutions for improving datacentre power and cooling efficiencies.

The open source hardware designs conceptualised by the Open Project community are then shared with the broader community, so anyone can use or improve them.

“We share our datacentre blueprint with the industry so anyone can make their systems more energy efficient," said Frankovsky. “The benefits of being open far outweigh the benefits of keeping datacentre blueprints private.”

But the Open Compute Project does not include big datacentre and cloud companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple or Microsoft. “We are not the first to build an energy-efficient datacentre, but we are the first to share the blueprint. But there could be more learning if some of our peers did the same,” he said.

Datacentre designs for all industries

Frankovsky, who is also chairman and president of the Open Compute Project, said datacentre designs based on Open Compute are applicable to any enterprise, ranging from financial services to oil and gas companies, not just internet giants such as Facebook.

The benefits of being open far outweigh the benefits of keeping datacentre blueprints private

Frank Frankovsky, Facebook

“Goldman Sachs is a player in a heavily regulated sector and having it on board helps us understand the hurdles some sectors face and helps us develop systems suitable to all,” he said.

Frankovsky highlighted other benefits of using open source hardware, such as a decrease in the failure rate in Facebook’s datacentres. The open source datacentre systems are heat-resistant and moisture-resistant, which enables Facebook to rely entirely on free air cooling for its datacentres, avoiding the need for uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) and air-conditioning units, he said. The social network has reduced the number of backup generators required at its Swedish datacentre facility by more than 70%.

This makes Open Compute developers “disruptive” to the workings of industry standards organisations such as Ashrae, he said. “Ashrae plays an important role in datacentre energy efficiency, but a lot of its members are power units suppliers and Ashrae’s agenda is slightly different than ours,” said Frankovsky.

In the long run, datacentre hardware systems will become better through the community-led, collaborated development of open source hardware, and even companies with mainstream computing requirements will start using them, he said.


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