In this article, we will feature a largely ignored cornerstone of digital transformation – the adoption of technology commons: open-source software, open hardware, open data, etc. Using the story of the Open Compute Project, currently celebrating its 10th anniversary, we illustrate how such ecosystems revolutionise industry foundations by removing market bottlenecks and transform technology development into collaborative efforts.
Technology commons: the invisible force that shaped the digital economy
Malcolm P. McLean is a truck driver who revolutionised the transportation industry when he invented the shipping container, the basic unit of transportation that powered the global trade growth during the last part of the 20th century. Awarded a patent for this invention, he was nevertheless conscious that the container needed to become a widely adopted standard, which pushed him to issue a royalty-free license of his invention to the Industrial Organization for Standardization (ISO). As this sparked a growth in the usage of containers, his company, SeaLand Industries, was in the best position to capture benefits from it and it became the largest cargo shipping business. This story illustrates how open designs and technology commons can change the foundation of an entire industry.
Years later, as technology became more widespread, open-source software, another form of technology common, became a dominant force. Today, the largest contributors to open-source software projects are companies such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Google and Facebook have benefited from open-source software since their early days. As they evolved, they have turned open-source developments into large-scale innovation engines. It powered their growth and the growth of a myriad of digital native companies. Today start-ups only pay a fraction of the costs needed to create applications thanks to open-source software. It has powered the transition to a mobile world and unleashed the adoption of artificial intelligence. Google and Facebook have created and open-sourced the most-used machine learning frameworks: TensorFlow and PyTorch. These digital giants have also used open source to their advantage; to bring flows of users to their platforms and to challenge their own proprietary solutions. It also makes them an attractive employer as talented developers love open source.
While the development of technology commons has taken place deep in the technology stacks of these companies, many managers who are not familiar with digital infrastructures are unaware of the power of technology commons. Facebook and a group of companies have even brought open-source development to the hardware world. Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2021, the Open Compute Project (OCP) offers a great illustration of forces at play deep within the technology world. It is an ecosystem that has transformed the foundations of the data centre sector.
The story of the Open Compute Project (OCP)
In 2009, Facebook was experiencing capacity issues detrimental to its users’ experience and started to design its own data centre. At that time Google and Microsoft had ambitions in the cloud market and they were already working on custom designs for their data centres. However, they were keeping their design for themselves. Facebook did not see data centres as a differentiating factor and decided to open source its designs. This was done in collaboration with Intel, Rackspace, Goldman Sachs and Andy Bechtolsheim, who established the Open Compute Project Foundation in 2012. Today thousands of engineers are working on dozens of projects across the ecosystem. The designs are available under permissive and reciprocal licenses. The Foundation has an inclusive decision-making process and focuses on promoting the adoption of OCP designs.
At the time, the focus for Facebook was on cost and energy efficiency. The designs started from a blank sheet of paper. This led to a reduction in the number of parts and to an optimised server layout that Facebook described as follows: “Our chassis is beautiful… functionally beautiful. In fact, we like to call it ‘vanity free.’ It was designed with utility in mind. We didn’t use plastic bezels, paint, or even mounting screws, which lowered the cost and weight. Our key customers — our data center technicians — provided a lot of input to the chassis design. The result was an easy to service chassis almost free of screws. A server actually can be assembled by hand in less than eight minutes and thirty seconds!1” While the initial focus was on components such as racks, servers, storage boxes and motherboards, OCP started to disaggregate the network layer of the data centre. This meant separating the software from the hardware to increase modularity and gain flexibility on the supply side.
Companies such as Microsoft and Apple later joined the Open Compute Project and contributed their designs. In 2020 Google joined the board of OCP and announced some upcoming contributions, while Facebook has already submitted over 50 contributions and Microsoft has contributed 35 to-date. As Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent joined, large scale OCP adoption is expected in Asia. Over time the focus of OCP projects has also shifted from what is inside the racks to new challenges and technologies, such as advanced cooling and energy re-use. Also, some new projects such as the Nokia open edge server have taken OCP out of the data centre to the edge, to achieve the best latency cost trade-off in 5G deployments.
Today, OCP has been widely adopted by the “hyperscale “companies; the 20+ internet giants which make extensive use of data centres, but it is also progressing beyond this market. Companies across many sectors are taking advantage of colocation solutions to benefit from the cost and energy efficiencies; others with more technical expertise have developed their own systems. One area where OCP is gaining significant traction is telecommunication with operators such as Telefonica, ATT and Deutsche Telekom. And the emerging disaggregation of the telecommunication value chain is likely to accelerate this.
Over the past 10 years, with the widespread adoption of cloud services, OCP has transformed the design of data centres. Suppliers of OCP components see their markets growing while traditional integrators are losing market share. HPE’s server unit, one of the market incumbents, is quite involved in OCP projects such as the Open Systems Firmware (OSF) project and HPE uses OCP components in its own line of servers. AMD is now seeing OCP as a vehicle to challenge Intel’s dominant position in the data centre chip market segment. These are clear signs that technology commons can shake the hardware world and rewrite the rules of competition.
The four OCP success factors
The success of OCP can be explained by four factors: OCP brings cost reduction, OCP enables sustainability improvements, OCP offers flexibility and speed and OCP combines the power of standard and innovation.
1. Cost reduction
The adoption of a modular and open architecture, coupled with a rigorous development process, eliminates unnecessary costs. This reduces investments and operating costs by optimising installation, maintenance and uninstallation activities. It also focuses on energy efficiencies. The sharing of designs leads to further economies of scale through standardisation and the combined volume of buyers. Yahoo Japan has reported a 35% price advantage in 2019 alone by using OCP servers and a 41% cost savings for racks.
2. Flexibility: speed and multiple sources of supply
As the 5000+ engineers involved in OCP work on the next generation of data centre components, they focus on radically simplifying installation, maintenance and uninstallation activities. This creates a highly flexible environment where installing a new rack takes no more than a few minutes to install. This is a powerful advantage and eases the installation of a new data centre and keeps it at its best level of performance over time. Flexibility is also the result of the disaggregation of the value chain. Instead of depending on a unique supplier to bundle multiple technologies and services, OCP adopters benefit from multiple sources of supply, reducing dependence on single providers.
3. A sustainability enabler
Over the past ten years, OCP has had a strong focus on sustainability performance. The overall carbon emission reduction is sizeable. Facebook estimated in 2018 that it had saved, thanks to OCP innovations, 400,000 metric tons of carbon, the equivalent 95,000 cars over an entire year. Today Advanced Cooling Solutions (ACS) and energy re-use are amongst the priorities for OCP members, and the ACS project are among the most active in the Community.
One of the most recent developments within the OCP Community is the circular economy implementation. Companies like Facebook adopt and acquire technologies ahead of others. These technologies can last a long time, but after a few years they are replaced to allow them to benefit from the latest technical developments. Thanks to the modular and open architecture of OCP they can be wiped and resold to other companies who benefit from recent technologies for a significantly reduced price. This extends the life of the equipment and reduces the CO2 impact of data centres.
4. Standard and innovation united
Finally, as all key industry players work together to innovate around a common architecture, a standard innovative solution is emerging. This eliminates the risk of fragmentation associated with innovation. James Pearce who was head of open source at Facebook commented “honestly the idea of open sourcing our designs has really helped accelerate the pace of innovation throughout that sort of ecosystem, it’s helped us to iterate quickly, and we know that many other companies in the industry, from Microsoft, now through to Google and many other hardware partners have been involved with the open compute project to, we think, a huge amount of success industry-wide in terms of driving the pace of innovation, driving down the costs of much of this hardware which we think benefits the technology industry as a whole.”2
Managing the OCP ecosystem
Managing a technology commons ecosystem is a challenging exercise. For an ecosystem such as OCP, the diversity of competencies required, the variety of stakeholders involved and the focus on collaborative effort offer very interesting leadership and management challenges. We have outlined some of them here.
Ensuring the architecture is simple, modular and open
Open development within OCP is structured around simple modular architectures. Components can be easily interconnected thanks to open interfaces. Modularity reduces complexity and openness creates architectural flexibility as components can be easily mixed and matched together. Together modularity and openness allow users to organise collaborative developments around specific technical projects that evolve independently from one another.
Devising supportive IP policies
OCP strikes a fine balance between maximising openness and attracting contributors to the overall project. The Open Compute Project releases specifications. With these open specifications, vendors build products that fit into the architecture and adopters assemble and integrate all the required technology together. Two types of contributions exist.
The first one consists of releasing the complete design files under an open-source license. These design files need to be precise enough so anyone can understand and use them. As technology evolves rapidly, leading vendors within the ecosystem maintain a time advantage even if they share their design.
The second one consists in specifying the interfaces leaving suppliers free to provide specific technologies, including proprietary ones that fit into the architecture. With both options available, the overall ecosystem is attractive for all participants. And even if designs are not fully shared, OCP adopters still have the choice to source components from multiple vendors who offer different technologies.
Creating a governance which supports collaborative development
OCP has created a decentralised and transparent decision-making process and fosters a collaborative approach. Technical directions are defined within OCP by the Incubation Committee. Members, who are elected by OCP members, review the specifications and designs submitted; they set technical directions and encourage open collaboration and contribution. Then each project has a project lead. Anyone can join a project as a participant, with participants receiving all email exchanges on the project, they can join meetings and access documentation. As meetings are recorded, they remain accessible on the OCP website. For companies who contribute, design and manufacture OCP components, being part of such a Community offers them opportunities to influence the project technology roadmaps, visibility and helps them go to market faster with new products.
Mobilising ecosystem participants
Ecosystem participants include companies who either adopt, integrate or contribute to OCP solutions. They need to be mobilised and integrated within the Community. This is achieved through a variety of methodologies. In the early years of OCP, there was a focus on the growth of the members and the joining of well-known companies to OCP. The reputation of the members of the board was also a way to create legitimacy during the early years. The OCP team organises conferences, workshops, and encourages adoption of and contributions to projects. Messaging focused on the benefits of the OCP solutions and were targeted to ecosystem participants and newcomers alike. Today, as OCP is reaching maturity, there is a strong focus on research and case studies which demonstrate the growing adoption and benefits of OCP solutions.
Changing an industry architecture using technology commons
Leveraging technology commons is a counter-intuitive strategy for many executives who, for many years, have focused on controlling unique valuable resources developed in-house. The prevailing belief being “Own it, and it will help you beat competition.”
However, as the complexity of digital systems increases, differentiation is coming only from a fraction of the overall digital infrastructure companies use. Technology commons help establish standards. They offer shortcuts by avoiding the lengthy market selection process and the myriad of competing options. But for technology commons to succeed, the executive reaction needs to become “This one, we can share it, and competition and many others will help us improve it.”
Open architectures and technology commons should be considered across industries as a strategic opportunity. They have the power to change an industry architecture and to re-shuffle competitive advantages. They are slowly but assuredly conquering the telecom and the automotive sectors. With connectivity penetrating every market it will continue to spread.
The impact of technology commons on industry architectures is twofold. It allows the decoupling of technology development from product development and creates frictionless supply markets. Over many years, we have assumed that competitive advantages are created in the early stages of the innovation process. However, open development is rewriting the rules of competition. Technology development can be performed by ecosystems that bring many companies together. They create software and hardware designs that are tested, used and improved by anyone. An effective coordination of ecosystems based on a radically transparent decision-making process allows the most valuable and useful solutions to emerge. This creates, over time, a technology common accessible to everyone. Technology development is becoming a pre-competitive, shared investment that helps scale innovation and establishes standards. This drastically reduces development costs through the re-use of past designs and through collaborative new developments.
This also creates frictionless markets by removing industry bottlenecks and diminishing entry barriers and brings the functioning of the market closer to a state of pure and perfect competition, where technologies can be easily sourced from multiple suppliers.
The Open Compute Project illustrate all these points and shows how the data centre industry has been transformed over the past decade.
About the Authors
Hervé Legenvre is Professor and Research Director at EIPM. He manages educational programmes for global clients. He conducts research and teaches on digitalisation, innovation, and supply chain. Lately Hervé has conducted extensive research on how open-source software and open hardware are transforming industry foundations.
Steve Helvie, Steve is currently the VP of Channel for the Open Compute Project (OCP). In this role he helps to educate organisations on the benefits of open hardware designs and the value of “community-driven” engineering for the data center. He’s an advocate of open source business models and promotes the decarbonisation of the data center across the OCP supply chain.