29 Jun 2020

Open Compute Project: When going virtual means going virtuous!

Hey, who’s adapted well to the strange world of the Covid-19 pandemic? The Open Compute Project, for one. And we can learn a lot from its experience.

I work at Datacenter Dynamics, so I know about migrating events to digital , because social distancing has made physical meetings impossible. So I was pleased to see the Open Compute Project pull this particular pivot off with panache.

Who is the OCP? We’ll get to that. The OCP summit in San Jose has always been a must-see event in the data centre industry. This year’s edition was due to happen at the start of March, but had to be abruptly cancelled at one week’s notice, when the World Health Organisation uprated the seriousness of the risk of the new coronavirus.

On March 5, what would have been the last day of the cancelled event, the OCP announced a virtual-only event the week of May 11. And on the three chosen days, it duly put on 250 sessions, with nearly 11,000 registered delegates. That’s around three times the number who went to the physical event in 2019, and not far off double the number of sessions.

So why should you care? The OCP is the organisation that has been making data centre equipment cheaper, more effective, and more open for all operators. It’s a “buyers’ club”, set up by Facebook to share and develop designs for hardware used in data centres, and has expanded to include a host of areas including network hardware, software, liquid cooling and racks.

Big cloud players like Facebook don’t buy their servers and switches from HP or IBM. They buy “white label” goods from Far Eastern vendors like Quanta, Inspur and Wiwynn, tailored to their needs. They don’t have unnecessary features and are sometimes called “vanity free” kit. Because Facebook buys thousands of servers at a time, the system works.

Those servers could do just as well for other customers, so in 2011, Facebook decided to share its designs. It was the first significant open source hardware project, and it allowed other users to get the benefits of the Facebook designs - while Facebook, and all the other OCP members, got further ideas from other partners.

The OCP rapidly expanded. Other players including Google and Microsoft came on board, and unexpected things happened. White label network switches evolved into fully open source devices, and the Open Rack reimagined how to install, power and cool servers, rather than following a design which was mostly down to tradition.

In 2018, the OCP even came out with a specification for buildings: projects which comply with the Data Centre Facility checklist which will be able to install OCP-compliant servers, power and cooling more easily.

The latest updates from all these projects were shared at the Virtual Summit this year, in sessions which went right down to the nitty-gritty. If all this is news to you, don’t worry. The entire virtual summit is available free online for the whole year.

And I’ve got a particular reason to applaud the success of the Virtual OCP Summit. I’ve enjoyed past summits, found news scoops and understood new areas there, but this year, I had no plans to visit the physical event.

Way before Covid-19 curtailed everyone’s travel, I decided last year that I won’t be travelling by plane while there is a climate emergency. Previously, I made two or three return trips across the Atlantic each year, and I was shocked to discover that the emissions from these jaunts made up the majority of my carbon footprint. I was working to save carbon emissions elsewhere - but those efforts were utterly futile if I still got on those planes.

So without this year’s virtual event, I would not have been to OCP Summit this year. I’ve benefitted, and I think the planet has too. I hope the success of this event might persuade a few others to forgo the air miles - for the benefit of our descendants.

Peter Judge (Guest)

Peter Judge is Global Editor at Datacenter Dynamics and a freelance tech writer on data centres, the cloud and networking. You can follow him at: @judgecorp


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