Granite Geek: Open Source Hardware

Jul 29, 2015

You’ve heard of open source software. Linux is perhaps the best-known example. But what about open source hardware? It’s not a new idea, but it’s now in New Hampshire proving itself valuable to one of the town of Merrimack’s biggest employers. David Brooks, a columnist for the Nashua Telegraph and writer at Granite Geek.org, spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello.

David, for the uninitiated, tell us: What is open source hardware?

Open source hardware is pretty much like open source software. Open source software has been the idea that you get people together to develop software products and make them freely available for anyone to use for commercial and non-commercial reasons. Open source hardware is the same idea. The idea was first floated by some folks at Facebook who were frustrated by the difficulty of getting a lot of the really boring components that are necessary for large-scale online companies, things like servers and switches and cables and things like that. They said, “Let’s get together with other companies that have the same needs and create standards so that all the manufacturers will have an idea of what to make.”

So that was created. It’s called Open Compute Project, or OCP. And it ended up signing up a bunch of big companies like Google and Microsoft but also a number of large financial firms like Bank of America and Fidelity Investments, which is a major player in New Hampshire. They have a huge campus in Merrimack with several thousand employees. And they were one of the initial companies to sign on for the same reason: they have big computing needs. They own these large server farms which hold lots and lots of data and need to crunch it, process it quickly and cheaply. So if they can get this stuff that’s better and cheaper then they’re happy.

Hardware is physical, real-world stuff, so how would companies get this stuff? Would they get it donated?

The OCP develops standards. They say, “Listen, what we need is storage systems that can handle this kind of data at this speed with this kind of connection and fits in this kind of space.” They make the standards available for other companies to build them. Then they can say, “If you build them, they’ll buy them.” Other folks build them and then the OCP members buy it. So I talked to Eric Wells, who is Vice President of Data Center Services at Fidelity and he said that part of what has happened as a result of OCP is that other companies are entering this business of manufacturing equipment because the standards are available. And by other companies, I suspect he means, you know, probably Chinese firms that can do it more cheaply than the brand-name products of the world. There’s actually some financial benefit to businesses as well.

So the financial benefit essentially manifests itself in the form of savings?

That’s certainly a lot of it, but operations, because the products do only what they want. Companies want to maximize the possible customers, so they put various different options into their server storage that the Fidelities of the world may not want, so they can get machines to do exactly what they want, presumably made for slightly less, and fit exactly their needs, so their operating costs are lower.

They wouldn’t have any of that extra stuff that they would have had to pay for but didn’t need.

Certainly that’s the idea. There’s an added benefit to the OCP, which is the open culture aspect of it, which has long been one of the appeals of open software. It’s not that you get to make cool stuff, but that you have this sharing environment and sort of the essence of geekdom, if you will. There’s some of that involved with the OCP as you send your engineers to attend—who only work in the company system—send them to the OCP and they’re hanging out with game designers who also have enormous needs for data crunching. So there’s a flow of ideas as well that’s the secondary benefit of participating in a project like this.

Tell us about the rack that’s been designed for this.

This shows—it’s kind of a boring aspect, but it shows how boring aspects are important. Fidelity helped develop a rack, or a frame that holds lots of computer servers and storage systems. They hold it and make it easy to swap them out if there’s a problem, gives easy access with cables. So rack design, which is about as dull as you can get in computers, is really important if you’re handling thousands of these. A good rack design can speed things up and make things cheaper. Fidelity helped develop one. In fact, I suggested in my column that, since Linux has the penguin called Tux, sort of the mascot for the open software movement, there’s no mascot for the open hardware movement. They should have Rackie, the Fidelity Investment server rack. SO far nobody’s taken me up on that idea, but I figure any day now.

You’ll get the phone call soon.

It’ll be an Internet meme before you know it.