Microsoft Reinventing Identity Through Open Compute Project

NEWS ANALYSIS: Famously closed-shop Microsoft unveils specs plus all the details for a new 12U server at the Open Compute Project event.

SAN JOSE, Calif.—The relatively new IT trend around open sourcing data center hardware specifications is finally becoming a force with which to be reckoned, following decades of sitting on the sidelines, watching open-source software take de facto control of the enterprise world.

More than 3,300 software developers, IT managers, C-level executives, and various analysts and vendor reps occupied a major portion of the cavernous San Jose Convention Center here Jan. 28 for the two-day Facebook-driven Open Compute Project Summit V. One can only assume many more thousands of interested IT folks are tuning in and out of the live streaming video of keynote speakers and topic panels.

Those 3,300 included Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, open-source publishing giant Tim O'Reilly, OCP chairman Cole Crawford and a list of other IT progressives.

Imagine the surprise—not to mention skepticism—of many old-school open-sourcers in the crowd of about 2,500 during a keynote titled "Microsoft Data Centers at Cloud Scale," delivered by Bill Laing, Microsoft's vice president of Windows Server and System Center Group Development.

'Wondering Why Microsoft Is Here?'

To his credit, Laing showed a sense of humor in anticipating what the crowd was thinking, saying right off the top: "I'm sure you're all wondering what Microsoft is doing here, and who is Bill Laing, anyway? Doesn't he realize that OCP stands for Open Compute Project? Rest assured, we're all in the right place."

The notoriously closed-shop Microsoft, which only recently joined the project, has been inspired by the work of OCP and Facebook, Laing said, in pushing forward innovation in the data center. It's a good thing, too, because Microsoft needs to find success soon in businesses other than PC operating systems, desktop software and video games—businesses that are not exactly greenfields anymore. Open-source software and hardware are really the only paths it can take to revitalize its data center business strategy.

In the data center sector, the Redmond, Wash.-based company has invested a huge amount of capital in its Windows Azure cloud system in a concerted attempt to catch up with the runaway success of another Pacific Northwest company, Amazon. Laing said that Microsoft has invested north of $50 billion in cloud development and hardware since 1995, and that the company has more than 1 million servers in data centers located all over the world.

Many of those servers, sad to say, are idle. eWEEK recently learned through another Microsoft source that the company has bought enough extra cloud-related data center hardware to cover 17 football fields—or 979,200 square feet. If each server or array takes up a footprint of 3 square feet, we're talking about more than 326,000 devices. They're all waiting around on the sidelines for the Azure cloud to get into high gear.

Major Interest From Microsoft for Several Years

So there's been no lack of interest or intent by Microsoft to muscle into new-gen IT during the last few years.

The company's latest enterprise move thus has been to the OCP. During his 20-minute presentation Jan. 28, Laing introduced a new, deep 12U rackable server that's unlike anything the company has ever produced.

Of course, Microsoft still doesn't make IT hardware; this is all designed to run on commodity hard drives and server frames made by other companies, although it's well-known that Dell is one of Microsoft's favored vendors.

The server features shared management controls, shared power supply, shared fans, a signal backplane, a central blade compute and JBOD (just a bunch of disks) modularity, with complete trays that can be removed and/or replaced.

Microsoft's considerable contributions to the OCP from this project include all the CAD (computer-aided design) models; all specs for the chassis, server and mezzanines; all written documentation; the management software; Gerber files (an open 2D bi-level vector image file format that is the de facto standard used by printed circuit board industry); and the source code for chassis management. It's all available today on Github, Laing said.

Major Advantages to Server—on Paper, Anyway

"Compared to traditional servers," Laing said, "with this one users can expect to see 40 percent cost savings, 15 percent power usage gains, and 50 percent improvement in deployment and service times."

The as-yet-unnamed Microsoft server can be preassembled and requires only low-tech servicing, meaning that virtually anybody with a mere smidge of training can learn how to replace any of the key components.

The Open Compute Project Summit 2014 continues through Jan. 29.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...