Open Compute Project

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Excerpts from How Facebook is eating the $140 billion hardware market by Julie Bort at Business Insider:

anyone can look at, use, or modify the designs of the hugely expensive computers that big companies use to run their operations — all for free. Contract manufacturers are standing by to build custom designs and to build, in bulk, standard designs agreed upon by the group.

Hardware engineers, no matter who they work for, could collaborate. Ideas could flow. New tech could be invented more quickly. Difficult tech problems could be fixed faster. And everyone would be able to share equally in the results.

It would be 180 degrees from the classic culture of patents and lawsuits and trade secrets that has ruled the tech industry for decades. But Facebook didn’t make hardware, so there was no risk to its

Zuck was in. One argument was particularly persuasive: "A company in Mountain View thinks their tech was a differentiator. We didn’t believe that,” Heiliger says, referring to the fact that Google builds much of
its own hardware and a lot of its own software and keeps most of that stuff a closely guarded secret.

Hardware engineers across the industry are using OCP to ask each other questions. “It’s hard to get even two companies to work together. We’ve managed to get couple of hundred companies to work together and to let engineers be engineers.”

In that atmosphere, Taylor’s team has taken hardware creation to a whole new level. Facebook has created some revolutionary designs for computer storage and for networking switches, trying them in Facebook and then contributing them to OCP once they know they work.

Next up, Facebook is inventing a piece of optical networking equipment that makes data center networks much faster and less expensive. It could inspire a whole new crop of hardware innovation, he says.

This could be a puff piece, but as far as I can tell is accurate, though the headline could be taken as an exaggeration (Facebook started the project but the ‘eating’ of closed datacenter hardware marketshare is being done by many parties). Jonathan Heiliger, quoted in the article, subsequently blogged further details in
Why I Started the Open Compute Project.

It seems that the Open Compute Project is a big deal in a big industry. It’ll probably be the subject of many industrial collaboration case studies, and industry/academic/DIY collaboration case studies to the extent it gets a broader community of users and contributors.

Given its size and contrast with existing hardware industry IP practices, the Open Compute Project might also be subject to study for scholars looking for variation in effective patent and other IP strength and resulting altered R&D investment, follow-on innovation, and other welfare-relevant outcomes.

The Business Insider article closes with this quote:

“Openness always wins, as long as you do it right. You don’t want to wind up on the wrong side of this one. It’s inevitable.”

“As long as you do it right” is a pretty strong caveat to inevitability! But the quote resonates with me: the current tragedy of the commons is largely a matter of lack of knowledge about how to make commons work. I’m happy to see entities of all sorts and sizes learn through doing, including when seen as not a business an entity is competing in, thus no or low risk.

Will expand in a policy post another time, but worth noting the Open Compute Project specifications and designs so have been released under the Open Web Foundation Agreement and CC-BY respectively. As of early 2014 they had proposed interesting permissive and copyleft hardware design licenses. Anyone know the status of those proposals?

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