Microsoft's Open Compute-inspired servers on display at the Open Compute Summit in Santa Clara in March 2017 Yevgeniy Sverdlik
Microsoft's Open Compute-inspired servers on display at the Open Compute Summit in Santa Clara in March 2017

LinkedIn Joins OCP, Continues Open19 Deployment in Its Data Centers

LinkedIn has joined the Open Compute Project, the Facebook-led open source data center initiative • OCP has lots of answers to LinkedIn’s questions about scaling its infrastructure to support exponential traffic growth • LinkedIn continues charging ahead with its own open source data center standard, Open19 • While there is some overlap between OCP and Open19, the two are fundamentally different

LinkedIn has joined the Open Compute Project, the open source design community for all things data center – from power and cooling systems to servers and management software – launched by Facebook in 2011.

It’s early days for the professional social network’s formal membership, but the company plans to contribute rack and server technology to the open source project, Zaid Ali Kahn, senior director of infrastructure engineering at LinkedIn, wrote in a blog post.

LinkedIn joined for similar reasons it started its own open source data center hardware initiative called Open19 two years ago: to improve its ability to scale the infrastructure that supports its increasingly popular service.

Users are no longer simply posting short text updates on LinkedIn, Kahn said. They’re now also sharing more data-intensive content, such as photos, videos, and long-form texts.

“This is driving exponential growth in global site traffic demands and a corresponding increase in the demands made of our data centers,” he wrote. “As a result, my team faced an interesting problem: we needed to find new ways to innovate for this kind of hyperscale growth.”

Hyperscale growth is at the core of OCP. Facebook started the project by contributing its own hardware specs, designed with its hyperscale data centers in mind, both in terms of cost and performance.

Asian design manufacturers – or any manufacturers – have since been able to use those open source specs to effectively compete against the likes of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Dell EMC, and later Cisco and Juniper, for big orders of servers, storage, or network switches that populate the massive data centers Facebook and others of similar scale have been building around the world.

Other hyperscale cloud platforms, such as Alphabet’s Google, Apple, Tencent, Alibaba, and LinkedIn’s parent Microsoft, have joined OCP. Microsoft has become one of the biggest driving forces behind the project, building its cloud hardware strategy around it.

When LinkedIn launched Open19, many wondered how a separate open source hardware initiative would reconcile with the big role OCP plays in its parent company’s infrastructure strategy. While there is some overlap between the areas of data center technology the two projects address, there are also some fundamental differences between them.

Open19 Bears Fruit for LinkedIn Data Center Team

Even though it’s now a platinum member of OCP, LinkedIn continues to charge full-steam ahead deploying Open19 infrastructure in its data centers. In the same blog post, Kahn said his team was “putting the finishing touches on deploying” the technology.

And it’s worked well so far. LinkedIn engineers have seen a “7X” improvement in rack integration as a result of Open19 and have been able to install four times the amount of servers per rack, he said.

LinkedIn’s Singapore data center (Photo: LinkedIn)

How OCP and Open19 are Different

LinkedIn hasn’t ruled out the possibility of one day contributing its server designs to Open19, but so far, the initiative has been primarily concerned with making the process of installing servers in a data center – both core and edge – faster and more efficient.

The current Open19 standard describes a “cage” that goes into a standard 19-inch data center rack and several standard “brick” server chassis that easily slide into the cage. It also includes power shelves (or shared power supplies for servers in the cage), and network and power connectors that don’t require technicians to plug and unplug cables.

The Open19 Brick Cage, designed by LinkedIn (Photo: Open19)

Open19 doesn’t address things like motherboards, processor types, memory, or other server innards, while OCP does. OCP has its own non-standard 21-inch rack specification, which Open19 is incompatible with. The number 19 in Open19’s name serves to draw that contrast, signaling that it’s aimed at smaller platforms than the ones operated by the biggest hyperscalers.

OCP’s scope is much broader than Open19’s. Besides servers and storage, Facebook has open sourced switch hardware through the project. There are networking software initiatives, such as Microsoft’s SONiC (which LinkedIn has been involved with), initiatives for hardware management, firmware, security, data center facilities, and a whole group of vendors and end users focused solely on telco infrastructure.

There’s also a big difference between the ways the two projects treat intellectual property. If a vendor wants to adopt OCP specs to create its own product and have it recognized as OCP-compliant, they’re required to open source the final product in its entirety. Open19 allows vendors to participate and adapt its framework without having to part with intellectual property associated with hardware innards.

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