2016 OCP Summit Solidifies Mega Trend to Open Hardware & Software in Mega Data Centers

The highlight of the 2016 Open Compute Project (OCP) Summit, held March 9-10, 2016 at the San Jose Convention Center, was Google’s unexpected announcement that it had joined OCP and was contributing “a new rack specification that includes 48V power distribution and a new form factor to allow OCP racks to fit into our data centers,” With Facebook and Microsoft already contributing lots of open source software (e.g. MSFT SONIC – more below) and hardware (compute server and switch designs), Google’s presence puts a solid stamp of authenticity on OCP and ensures the trend of open IT hardware and software will prevail in cloud resident mega data centers.

Google hopes it can go beyond the new power technology in working together with OCP, Urs Hölzle, Google’s senior vice president for technical infrastructure said in a surprise Wednesday keynote talk at the OCP Summit.  Google published a paper last week calling on disk manufacturers “to think about alternate form factors and alternate functionality of disks in the data center,” Hölzle said. Big data center operators “don’t care about individual disks, they care about thousands of disks that are tied together through a software system into a storage system.” Alternative form factors can save costs and reduce complexity.

Hölzle noted the OCP had made great progress (in open hardware designs/schematics), but said the organization could do a lot more in open software.  He said there’s an opportunity for OCP to improve software for managing the servers, switch/routers, storage, and racks in a (large) Data Center.  That would replace the totally outdated SNMP with its set of managed objects per equipment type (MIBs).

Jason Taylor, PhD, the OCP Foundation chairman and president + vice president of Infrastructure for Facebook, said that the success of the OCP concept depends upon its acceptance by the telecommunications industry.  Taylor said: “The acceptance of OCP from the telecommunications industry is a particularly important sign of momentum for the community. This is another industry where infrastructure is core to the business. Hopefully we’ll end up with a far more efficient infrastructure.”

This past January, the OCP launched the OCP Telco Project.  It’s specifically focused on open telecom data center technologies.  Members include AT&T, Deutshe Telekom (DT), EE (UK mobile network operator and Internet service provider), SK Telecom, Verizon, Equinix and Nexius.  The three main goals of the OCP Telco Project are:

  • Communicating telco technical requirements effectively to the OCP community.
  • Strengthening the OCP ecosystem to address the deployment and operational needs of telcos.
  • Bringing OCP innovations to telco data-center infrastructure for increased cost-savings and agility.

See OCP Telco Project,  Major Telcos Join Facebook’s Open Compute Project and Equinix Looks to Future-Proof Network Through Open Computing

In late February, Facebook started a parallel open Telecom Infra Project (TIP) for mobile networks which will use OCP principles.  Facebook’s Jay Parikh wrote in a blog post:

“TIP members will work together to contribute designs in three areas — access, backhaul, and core and management — applying the Open Compute Project models of openness and disaggregation as methods of spurring innovation. In what is a traditionally closed system, component pieces will be unbundled, affording operators more flexibility in building networks. This will result in significant gains in cost and operational efficiency for both rural and urban deployments. As the effort progresses, TIP members will work together to accelerate development of technologies like 5G that will pave the way for better connectivity and richer services.”

TIP was referenced by Mr. Parikh in his keynote speech which was preceeded by a panel session (see below) in which wireless carriers DT, SK Telecom, AT&T and Verizon shared how they planned to use and deploy OCP built network equipment.  Jay noted that Facebook contributed Wedge 100 and 6-pack – design of next-generation open networking switches to OCP.  Facebook is also working with other companies on standardizing data center optics and inter-data center (WAN) transport solutions to help the industry move faster on networking. MicrosoftVerizon, and Equinix are all part of that effort.

At the beginning of his keynote speech, Microsoft’s  Azure CTO Mark Russinovich asked the OCP Summit audience how many believed Microsoft was an “open source company?”  Very few hands were raised.   That was to change after Russinovich announced the release of SONiC (Software for Open Networking in the Cloud) to the OCP. It is based on the idea that a fully open sourced switch platform could be serviceable by sharing the same software stack across various hardware from multiple switch vendors/ ASIC switch silicon.  The new software extends and opens the Linux-based ACS switch that Microsoft has been using internally in its Azure cloud, and will be offered for all to use through the OCP.   It also includes software implementations for all the popular protocol stacks for a switch-router.


                                  Soucrce: Microsoft –  Positioning SONiC within a 3 layer stack


      Source:  Microsoft

The SONiC platform biulds on the Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI) a software layer launched last year by Microsoft, that translates the APIs for multiple network ASICs, so they can be run by the same software instead of requiring proprietary code.  With SAI, cloud service providers had to provide or find code to carry out actual network jobs on top of the interface These utilities included some open source software. SONiC combines those open source omponents (for jobs like BGP routing) and Microsoft’s own utilities, all of which have been open sourced. 

More than a simple proposal, SONiC is already receiving contributions from companies such as Arista, Broadcom, Dell, and Mellanox.  Russinovich closed by asking the audience how many NOW think Microsoft is an “open source company?”   Hundreds of hands went up in the air which affirms the audience’s recognition of SONiC as a key contribution to the open source networking software movement.

Rachael King, Reporter at the Wall Street Journal moderated a panel of telecommunications executives, including Ken Duell from AT&T, Mahmoud El-Assir from Verizon, Kangwon Lee from SK Telecom, and Daniel Brower from Deutsche Telekom to discuss some of the common infrastructure challenges related to shifting to 5G cellular networks quickly and without disrupting service. The central theme of the session was “driving innovation at a much greater speed,” as Daneil Brower, VP chief architect of infrastructure cloud for DT.  The goal is improved service velocity so carriers can deploy and realize revenues from new services much quicker.

Most telco network operators are focused on shifting to “white box” switches and routers and virtualizing their networks, taking an open approach to infrastructure will make the transition to 5G more efficient and will accelerate the speed of delivery and configuration of networks.

Ken Duell, AVP of new technology product development and engineering at AT&T concisely summarized the carrier’s dilemma: “In our case, it’s a matter of survival. Our customers are expecting services on demand anywhere they may be. We’re finding that the open source platform … provides us a platform to build new services and deliver with much faster velocity.”

Duell said a major challenge facing AT&T and other telecom companies is network operating system software. “When we think of white boxes, the hardware eco-system is maturing very quickly. The challenge is the software, especially network OS software, to run on these systems with WAN networking features. One of the things we hoped … is to create enough of an ecosystem to create these network OS software platforms.”

There’s also a huge learning and retraining effort for network engineers and other employees, which AT&T is addressing with new on-line learning courses.

Verizon SVP and CIO Mahmoud El Assir hit on the ability of open source and virtualization of functions (e.g. virtualized CPE) to create true network personalization for future wireless customers.  That was somewhat of a surprise to the WSJ moderator and to this author.  El Assir compared the new telco focus to the now outdated historical concerns with providing increased speed/throughput and supporting various protocols on the same network.

“Now it’s exciting that the telecom industry, the networking industry, everything is becoming more software,” El Assir said. “Everything in the network becomes more like an app. This allows us to kind of unlock and de-aggregate our network components and accelerate the speed of innovation. … Getting compute everywhere in the network, all the way to the edge, is a key element for us.”

El Assir added OCP-based switches and routers will allow for “personalized networks on the edge. You can have your own network on the edge. Today that’s not possible. Today everybody is connected to the same cell. We can change that. Edge compute will create this differentiation.”

Kang-Won Lee, director of wireless access network solution management for SK Telecom, looked ahead to “5G” and the various high-capacity use cases that will usher in a new type of network that will require white box hardware due to cost models.

“It was more about the storage and the bandwidth and how you support people moving around to make sure their connections don’t drop,” Lee said. “That was the foremost goal of mobile service providers. In Korea, we have already achieved that.” With 5G the network “will be a lot of different types of traffic that need to be able to connect. In order to support those different types of traffic … it will require a lot of work. That’s why we are looking at data centers, white boxes, obviously, I mean, creating data centers with the brand name servers is not going to be cost efficient.”

Moderator Rachel King asked: “So what about Verizon and AT&T, fierce rivals in the U.S. mobile market, sharing research and collaborating – how does that work?”

“Our current focus is on the customer,” El Assir replied. “I think now with what OCP is bringing to the table is really unique. We’ve moved from using proprietary software to open source software and now we’re at a good place where we can transition from using proprietary hardware to open source hardware. We want the ecosystem to grow in order for the ecosystem to be successful.”

“There’s a lot of efficiencies in having many companies collaborate on open source hardware,” Duell added. “I think it will help drive the cost down and the efficiency up across the entire industry. AT&T will still compete with Verizon, but the differentiation will come with the software. The hardware will be common. We’ll compete on software features.”

You can watch the video of that panel session here.

We close with a resonating quote from Carl Weinschenk, who covers telecom for IT Business Edge:

“Reconfiguring how IT and telecom companies acquire equipment is a complex and long-term endeavor. OCP appears to be taking that long road, and is getting buy-in from companies that can help make it happen.”