Does LinkedIn's Data Center Standard Make Sense for HPE and the Like?

Mary Branscombe

June 22, 2017

5 Min Read
Does LinkedIn's Data Center Standard Make Sense for HPE and the Like?
LinkedIn headquarters in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s easy to look at the new Open19 data center rack standard initiative spearheaded by LinkedIn as competition for the Open Compute Project. It does have some of the same vendors involved; in particular, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which has said it will make its OCP Cloudline hardware Open19-compliant.

However, when you look at both the scope of the new initiative and the list of vendors who’ve signed up for the Open19 consortium, it’s clear that this is a very different approach, aimed at different customers.

Senior Analyst Jeff Fidacaro from 451 Research told Data Center Knowledge that Open19 is focused on “efficient, interoperable, interchangeable hardware that can be quickly added to a rack.” You can take a pick-and-mix approach to compute, storage and networking, snapping them into existing racks retrofitted with Open19 cages and power shells. Correctly installed, that will improve servicing times, letting engineers pull and replace servers from racks in less than a minute.

For vendors though, he suggested this is “essentially repackaging existing technologies in a more efficient manner, decreasing the integration and lead time and making them more standardised” – but without having to contribute IP to the project for competitors to use.

That’s an integration model that HPE has long been familiar with, from its early blade servers to its modern Synergy hardware. In many ways, Open19 hardware is what HPE has been calling “composable infrastructure”, where compute, storage, and networking are treated as resource pools that can be configured on the fly to support application needs.

Managing that composable infrastructure is key to delivering the benefits Open19 offers, and that’s one area HPE could add significant value to the new standard. The HPE OneView management platform allows configuration at a rack level, deploying servers onto bare metal and assigning storage and virtual networks. With Open19 purely focused on hardware form factors and connectors, a software management layer is essential and HPE is well placed to deliver both hardware and software. Today OneView only works with HPE hardware; for Open19 it would have to support any hardware that meets the standard.

Management Tools

Finding the right management tool is a key issue facing anyone trying to build a modern data center. Neither enterprises not hosting services have the talent to compete with what Fidacaro calls “the armies of developers” at the hyperscale cloud services, or at LinkedIn itself. LinkedIn can build the software to turn the composable pieces of Open19 into the data center it needs; other customers will need to buy in tools and maybe services. That’s something HPE can deliver: a software layer that bridges the gaps between management tooling and the modern application ecosystem.

As Open19 is software agnostic, and targeted at a wide range of enterprises with a wider set of infrastructure skills; a strong services offering like HPE’s is likely to be essential. Getting clients up and running will provide work for its technology support services team, taking clients from a traditional data center to a private cloud, and integrating tools that go beyond the scope of Open19.

The ideal of the modern data center is a massive IoT installation, full of sensors to monitor the environment and equipment. That requires special data center infrastructure management (DCIM) tools to handle the resulting data and to use it to manage hardware and software loads. Ideally, you want to use tooling to move VMs around and power servers up and down based on current demands. OneView doesn’t cover that, but it has APIs to the existing DCIM platforms.

How Viable is Open19?

The bigger question is whether HPE can make a business out of Open19.

LinkedIn – which started this project long before it had access to Microsoft’s cloud hardware resources – isn’t the only business that’s looking for a center infrastructure standard beyond OCP that doesn’t lock them in to a single vendor. As a mid-tier cloud player LinkedIn doesn't have the hyperscale demands that drove Facebook to creating Open Compute in the first place. Instead, it’s any large data center that’s looking for access to dense, composable, infrastructure.

“The Open19 goal is for everyone to be able to source the components they need, which is difficult with OCP if you’re not hyperscale,” Fidacaro said. That makes Open19 an interesting approach for customers like hosting providers, large-scale IoT services, and financial services. It’s a market that’s currently under-served, and one that’s likely to grow quickly.

That market is attractive to HPE, especially because it’s already familiar with supporting composable infrastructure in its Synergy product.

Fidacaro also believes Open19 is suited to the new idea of micro-data centers; highly monitored, remotely operated, small data centers at the edge.

Working from a single rack up, Open19 offers a mix of building block elements that can be deployed in a standard 19” rack, with simplified power and networking connectors. HPE’s existing data center products like Synergy and the OPC 21 Cloudline both appear suitable for use in Open19 cabinets (once modified). Adapting its hardware to support Open19 won’t be difficult; choosing the right set of SKUs might be trickier.

HPE certainly needs to find new markets for its cloud hardware. The hyperscale clouds are moving away from buying vendor hardware, and switching to their own custom hardware like Microsoft’s Olympus where they’re able focus on their specific needs. HPE CEO Meg Whitman has suggested that the company might move away from its partnership with Foxconn after one unnamed customer (widely believed to be Microsoft) reduced its order significantly. As the server and data market shifts, there’s really no alternative for vendors like HPE but to join these open communities.

There is still an opportunity for differentiation. Open19 makes it easier for proprietary hardware to take advantage of common standards; all it mandates is power and network connections as well as case sizes. But it’s also true that what’s in the case doesn’t matter, as long as it fits in the Open19 cage in the rack. The challenge will be for HPE to preserve margins when competing with contract manufacturers and other server vendors. After all, if anyone’s server can fit into that rack, how can HPE justify a higher price? Services and software are very likely to be the answer, because at this point, the software to build and manage the composable Open19 vision is very much the missing piece.

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