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Open Compute Summit all promise, no delivery, for enterprise

Announcements from Facebook and Microsoft were the highlight of this year's Open Compute Summit, which remains a showcase for hyperscale cloud technology.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The Open Compute Project caters to the technology needs of Facebook, Microsoft and other companies with mega-scale data centers that leave most enterprises in awe. Nevertheless, monitoring the open source group's work is important, since no one knows how it could affect the mainstream technology market.

During OCP's Open Compute Summit in Silicon Valley this week, the pre-eminent question in the mind of attendees -- the majority of whom were technology suppliers -- was how to build a business around nonproprietary technology.

"There's not been a tremendous amount of uptake in the enterprise," Tony Palmer, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc., based in Milford, Mass., said of OCP technology. "I saw lots and lots of vendors there -- mostly vendors who are either already participating, or who are trying to figure out how to make money with it."

Indeed, the biggest market is OCP-compliant compute and networking hardware that cloud service providers do not want to make themselves. People working the showroom booths of hardware makers, such as Flex and Dell EMC, reported that most of the visitors were not potential buyers, but other vendors asking questions about OCP-approved components.

While vendors look for a pot of gold, OCP members with deep pockets are designing technology to serve data centers similar to Facebook's, which handles 7.5 quadrillion instructions per second, or 1,000 for every person on the planet.

Open Compute Summit announcements

Microsoft, with its Azure cloud second in size only to Amazon Web Services, announced that it had built a version of Windows Server for computing hardware powered by chips designed by ARM Holdings PLC.

Intel makes the majority of server processors used by cloud providers. But if Microsoft goes to production with the ARM servers, then the technology could become a threat to Intel's multibillion-dollar cloud business.

Microsoft is testing 64-bit ARM processors for specific workloads, including big data analytics, machine learning and storage, said Leendert van Doorn, who has the title of a distinguished engineer within Azure. The company is using Cavium's ThunderX2 ARM-based system on a chip and Qualcomm's Centriq 2400 processor. The chips will run on hardware designed by Microsoft and the OCP.

The design effort, called Project Olympus, includes a universal motherboard, a power supply, a 1U and 2U server chassis, and a rack management card. Microsoft and Qualcomm showcased a Centriq 2400-powered Olympus motherboard in the summit showroom.

Microsoft based its decision to use ARM on the need to balance performance with power consumption when tackling workloads unique to cloud providers. The vendor has no plans to offer Windows Server for ARM in the enterprise market.

"We don't see much demand in the enterprise space," van Doorn said.

Facebook also unveiled technology at the summit, though less dramatic than Microsoft's. The OCP founder launched an overhaul of its storage chassis design. Called Bryce Canyon, the high-density platform, which supports 72 hard disk drives, is for handling massive amounts of photos and videos.

Other announcements include a successor to Facebook's Big Sur GPU computer server. The new version, Big Basin, can crunch 30% more data than its predecessor due, in part, to a memory size increase from 12 GB to 16 GB.

Facebook also introduced Tioga Pass -- an upgrade of its dual-socket server -- and version 2 of its multinode compute platform, called Yosemite, which holds four single-socket server cards.

Potential benefits for mainstream enterprises

None of the technology launched at the Open Compute Summit will help the average company run its networks or business applications. However, startups are undoubtedly watching OCP innovation.

"The promise of it is that you're able to take these designs and either deploy them on white box hardware, or, if you're a manufacturer, you can take these designs and produce this standard product that's competitive with the big, brand-name vendors," Palmer said.

So far, that promise is a long way from reality.

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