Disruption. Don’t you love it? Over the past week we’ve seen a good example that provides an interesting glimpse into how incumbent vendors deal with industry disruption. Microsoft, once the evil empire of proprietary, locked down and closed solutions, has got the open sharing mantra. Redmond has undoubtedly seen the writing on the wall with the rise of open source and open solutions. This week at the Open Compute Project Summit, Microsoft announced that it was joining the initiative and contributing its own specification for the servers it uses in the Microsoft Cloud.
For context, the OCP was a community started by Facebook in 2011 that is focused on the open collaboration around efficient hardware for high scale computing. The idea being that in a world where hardware is cheap and largely undifferentiated, it makes sense to find broad efficiencies and leave the differentiation for higher value services.
Of course not everyone gets the sharing religion, over on the register Jack Clark wrote last week about prospective Amazon employees who reported being concerned about just how selfish the company is when it comes to sharing the secrets of their operation. And Google for that matter isn’t exactly open when it comes to showing the world how its operation runs.
Microsoft on the other hand is literally giving away the secrets it uses to run its data centers. Windows Azure GM Mike Neil emphasizes this is the current design the company uses and says that the spec benefits Microsoft by way of a 40% cost-saving and 15% power efficiency gain. All of a sudden anyone (including, it must be said, Microsoft’s competitors) can call their friendly server supplier and acquire the Microsoft specification.
Of course Microsoft isn’t doing this completely altruistically – it is, of course, primarily a software company, and by joining the OCP it too should be able to eke out some improved efficiencies gained through shared knowledge. It also potentially gets to tailor software for a more generic server use case, and compete more effectively against other software vendors.
For the OCP there is a double benefit in all of this. Firstly Microsoft joining gives it increased credibility, an important thing in a world that has as many initiatives as technology company acronyms – OCP gets a real fillip from Microsoft’s membership. Secondarily and more importantly however, Microsoft brings a far broader experience to the project than other members – Microsoft builds infrastructure for a huge range of workloads, from office productivity, databases, search engine and games – this broad experience will be useful as OCP members, and others, build infrastructure for their particular use case.
Of course it’s somewhat more complex than that – the very vendors who Microsoft buys servers from, are also the vendors who will be a little distraught at a customer publicly telling the world how suppliers should do their jobs better. And by going public with the best way to build data center servers, Microsoft helps reduce the opportunity for HP, Dell, Lenovo and the other server vendors to identify proprietary tweaks that enable it to differentiate. All’s fair in love and war though, right?
It’s a fascinating time in technology – who would have thought only a few years ago just how open some proprietary companies would become?