Open Hardware Movement Changing the Game for IT Vendors, Enterprises

Facebook's Open Compute Project is helping put a focus on the trend toward systems that are designed and built through collaborations and partnerships.

Open Hardware

Multinational financial services giant Goldman Sachs had good reasons to get actively involved with the open hardware movement.

Goldman Sachs has a massive, global IT footprint, with more than 118,000 systems holding more than 500,000 compute cores and running more than 4,000 applications, all housed in 68 data centers worldwide.

The firm also has been a longtime member of the Open Compute Project (OCP), the industry consortium started by Facebook in 2011 to push the idea of open-source hardware in the data center.

Goldman Sachs officials, intrigued by the idea of using the same open-source philosophy for hardware that fueled the rise of Linux in software, saw the chance to reduce capital and operational expenses in their IT infrastructure while continuing to drive performance, agility and scalability. To do their part, they helped work on such areas in the OCP as hardware and firmware.

Starting last year, the company began buying OCP-based servers, and now officials are determined that 70 percent of the servers that Goldman Sachs buys this year will be OCP systems. Eventually, 80 percent of the firm's servers throughout its data centers will be open-source systems.

"We've been clear to the vendor community," Don Duet, managing director at Goldman Sachs, told Business Insider recently. "There's no reason to go backwards. We didn't go back after adopting open-source operating systems."

Vendors are listening and the drive behind open hardware is gaining momentum. At the hyperscale level, where companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft run tens or hundreds of thousands of servers in their data centers, power efficiency, flexibility, performance, scalability and affordability are at a premium. These are things that server designs from the likes of Dell and Hewlett-Packard can't always address.

Some, like Facebook and Google, have instead taken off-the-shelf components and leveraged in-house engineering skills to develop their own hardware that can address their particular needs. Some have partnered with server vendors. For example, Microsoft and Dell have entered a partnership to deliver hardware integrated with the Microsoft Cloud Platform System.

Other industries also are looking at open hardware solutions. Goldman Sachs is part of a growing list of financial services firms—such as Fidelity Investments, Bank of America and Capital One—that are taking advantage of the trend looking to garner the same benefits that the Web-scale organizations see.

For example, Bank of America officials say they want 80 percent of their systems to be open-source by 2018, while Fidelity officials at the Open Compute Summit in March also reportedly expressed interest in bringing in open systems. Fidelity was an early OCP supporter.

"IT, for a specific set of customers, is becoming their business," Ashley Gorakhpurwalla, vice president and general manager for Dell Server Solutions, told eWEEK, noting that the technology they use can be a significant competitive advantage.

The idea of more open and standard data center hardware can be traced back to the introduction of x86 processors into servers, according to Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT. Operating systems at the time were tied to the servers they were running on—like AIX on IBM's Power systems, Solaris on Sun Microsystems' SPARC servers, etc.

Servers powered by x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices have come to dominate the market in large part by enabling less expensive servers to run a range of operating systems, such as Windows and Linux.