Microsoft is the latest IT firm to join the Open Compute Project (OCP) initiative, founded by Facebook, and is contributing the hardware specifications and other details of the servers it uses in its data centres.
The OCP initiative was launched by Facebook in 2011 to drive the development of more efficient servers and other hardware better suited to the scale and dynamic nature of modern large-scale data centres. Since then, it has been joined by numerous top industry names including HP, Dell, Intel and AMD. Intel outlined its own ideas for future data centre architectures at an event in San Francisco last year.
At the latest OCP Summit event, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Cloud and Enterprise Bill Laing announced that Microsoft is contributing its cloud server specifications. These include hardware specifications, design collateral (CAD and Gerber files), and system management source code for the servers used to deploy its cloud services such as Windows Azure, Bing and Office 365.
Some details of the specifications have also been disclosed on Microsoft's Data Centers Blog, and reveal that the firm favours a shared rack-mount chassis 12U in height that accommodates 24 server-blade modules, each 1U high and mounted two abreast inside the chassis.
The chassis itself uses a passive backplane to provide power, network and storage connections to the server nodes. This eliminates the need to connect and disconnect cables during production operations and on-site support, according to Microsoft, which cuts out errors from cables coming loose and is also expected to save 1,100 miles of cabling for a deployment of a million servers.
This design is optimised for mass contract manufacturing, Microsoft said, and is estimated to save 10,000 tons of metal for every million servers, with projected cost savings of 40 percent and power efficiency savings of 15 percent when compared with traditional enterprise server designs.
Microsoft is donating not just the specifications of the servers, mezzanine cards, trays and the entire chassis, but also mechanical CAD models and Gerber files of the circuit layouts for items such as the power distribution board and tray backplane.
This delivers an unprecedented level of detail for those interested in examining Microsoft's specifications and making use of them for their own purposes, according to Laing.
"Microsoft is the only global cloud provider to publicly release these server specifications through OCP, and the information we are sharing is highly detailed," he said.
In addition, Microsoft is opening up on the management technologies it uses to control the more than one million servers it already has deployed in its data centres around the globe.
This includes a dedicated management card inside each chassis, which Microsoft has released the specifications for, while the firm is also open sourcing the Chassis Manager software used for control of hardware operations, such as server diagnostics, power supply and fan control, which is available to download from GitHub.
"We would like to help build an open source software community within OCP as well," Laing said.
Microsoft's motives for opening up its server specifications at this point in time are not entirely clear. The firm said that it aims to drive hardware innovation for cloud computing, and it is possible that broader adoption of the specifications by vendors could drive down the company's own procurement costs, with Laing stating that "we look forward to seeing commercial offerings in the near future".
However, some analysts have downplayed the significance of Microsoft's move, as many of the service operators that have adopted OCP compliant hardware tend to favour Linux over Windows, while others believed the move is more symbolic of a desire on Microsoft's part to be seen to be contributing to the open standards community.
"It is probably about ensuring that they are seen to be part of the hype about being open that nearly all vendors now state that they are," said Ovum principal analyst Roy Illsley.
Gartner research vice president Jeffrey Hewitt agreed, saying that the move gives Microsoft a dash of "hipness", but added that it could pay off in future.
"For Microsoft, it puts them in a position of supporting a software layer and an API as an alternative to Google, Amazon, and Open Stack in the Webscale and Cloud arenas. While it may not result in immediate business returns, it does give Microsoft a strategic position and potential mutual leverage for growth with Open Compute approaches going forward," he said.
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