Earlier this week, we had the Open Compute Summit. Last week was Mobile World Congress. Mark Shuttleworth — founder of the Ubuntu open source project and its associated company, Canonical — tied the two together in an anecdote that summed up the dream of open source, I thought.
It was about a little x86-based switch that Canonical was showing off in its booth, an “amazingly cheap” setup being shown as a prototype. It was outfitted with network ports and was using some kind of app (Shuttleworth didn’t specify) for the switching.
“That was Monday. Tuesday, somebody came along and said, ‘Here, try this.’ In his hotel room he’d created an app for that switch which would stream monitoring data from that switch back to the Azure cloud,” Shuttleworth said.
“Wednesday a guy came along and he said, ‘Try this’ — different guy — and it was an app that installed F5‘s LineRate on that switch.”
This is what open source projects hope for — an uncorking of inspiration driven by the free availability of technology. More cynically, it might also be what vendors are hoping for when they jump on the open source bandwagon: an outpouring of unpaid R&D.
Both types of hope were visible in abundance at the Open Compute Summit this week. It was a bustling conference, brimming with product releases as evidence that Facebook‘s idea of open source hardware is capturing the imaginations of many industry engineers.
Whether the Open Compute Project and Facebook’s dream of open source hardware can catch on with mainstream enterprises, as opposed to early-adopter types and Facebook’s hyperscale brethren, is yet to be seen. There are still business and operations issues to be covered — especially on the networking side of the Open Compute Project.
The switch-monitoring app in Shuttleworth’s story is part of what’s needed. Switches and routers make up what Shuttleworth called the “crystalline” infrastructure. That’s in contrast to servers, which can be thrown out or replaced at will. If they fail, you don’t necessarily notice (assuming failover mechanisms themselves don’t fail).
But “lose a switch, you lose the rack,” he said. The network is more precious than a handful of servers.
OCP networking made some good strides this week, including commercial products pending from Accton. By the end of the year, we might have an idea whether open source hardware is too early, too complicated, or just too radical to succeed in the market.