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Facebook’s Other Big Disruption

Joel Saget | AFP | Getty Images

Facebook just made a potentially game-changing announcement. It got less fanfare than Tuesday's announcement that it is going into the social search business, but this other announcement may have bigger long-term implications for the technology industry.

Put simply, some of the world's biggest computing systems just got a little cheaper, and a lot easier to configure. As a consequence, the companies that supply the hardware to these systems may have to scramble to remain as profitable. The reason is a Facebook-led open source project.

In 2011 Facebook began the Open Compute Project, an effort among technology companies to use open-source computer hardware. Tech companies similarly shared intellectual property with Linux software, which lowered costs and spurred innovation. Facebook's project has attracted many significant participants, including Goldman Sachs, Arista Networks, Rackspace, Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

At a user summit on Wednesday Intel, another key member of the Open Compute Project, announced it would release to the group a silicon-based optical system that enables the data and computing elements in a rack of computer servers to communicate at 100 gigabits a second. That is significantly faster than conventional wire-based methods, and uses about half the power.

More important, it means that elements of memory and processing that now must be fixed closely together can be separated within a rack, and used as needed for different kinds of tasks. There is a lot of waste in data centers today simply because, when there is an upgrade in servers, lots of other associated data-processing hardware has to be changed, too.

There were other announcements, like a computer motherboard called Grouphug that allows different manufacturers' chips to be interchanged without altering other parts of the machine. Before, they were custom made. Put together, such innovations potentially lower the cost and complexity of running big and small data centers to an extent that works for a lot of companies.

"Who wouldn't want a cheaper, more efficient server?" said Frank Frankovsky, vice president of hardware design at Facebook, and the chairman of Open Compute. "The problem we're solving is much larger than Facebook's own challenges. There is a massive amount of data in the world that people expect to have processed quickly."

To be sure, it's in Facebook's interest to attack expensive hardware. The company makes money from a service that requires hundreds of thousands of computer servers distributed in big centers around the world. Google and Amazon.com, which are not members of the project, maintain proprietary systems which they apparently felt gave them a competitive edge.

For Facebook, the difference seems to be more in the software. To the extent hardware costs drop, that's great for them. Mr. Frankovsky argued that, while "this puts challenges on the incumbents" in hardware, "it also helps them. They have a finite number of engineering resources, and this way they hear from a community about whether there is an interest for a product." Intel may hope to benefit from its open-source release, since it could see an overall rise in demand for its chips with the move toward cheaper computing.

The real test is whether Facebook can increase the number of potential buyers for Open Compute equipment. "The question is, can they extend this beyond a few Web businesses like Facebook and Rackspace, or a few financial exercises at Goldman, and bring this to industries like oil or aerospace?" said Matt Eastwood, an analyst with IDC, a technology research firm. "That will take it from 20 or 30 companies to hundreds of companies."

The issue isn't so much a technical one, he argues, as it is one of getting corporate information technology professionals interested in radical design changes. Mr. Frankovsky is aware of the problem. Recently he and his colleagues led a seminar in Texas for BP, Shell and other oil giants on how they could use Open Compute hardware in their data centers.

This will not change things dramatically this year, and possibly even next, but over the long haul it could remake a lot of businesses. Linux, remember, was around for several years as a minor player, but eventually undid Sun Microsystems and others.

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