For decades, Microsoft warred with open-source software. Then, under CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft finally woke up and saw how it could win with open source. But even as Microsoft embraced Linux and became an avid open-source follower, it was never a leader.
That’s changing. Microsoft has just announced Project Olympus, a hyperscale cloud hardware design and new model for open-source hardware development.
Microsoft is creating Project Olympus in concert with the Open Compute Project (OCP). Since Facebook started OCP, it has become the hardware trend-setter for cloud-scale data centers. What Project Olympus brings to the table is a new hardware development model for community-based open collaboration.
Kushagra Vaid, Microsoft’s GM of Azure Hardware Infrastructure, explained in a blog post, “An important realization is that open-source hardware development is currently not as agile and iterative as open-source software. The current process for open hardware development is to contribute designs that are production-ready. At that stage, the design is essentially finalized – almost 100% complete – and this late contribution delays the development of derivative designs, limits interactive community engagement and adoption, and slows down overall delivery.”
Microsoft’s answer? To adopt the open-source collaboration software model.
Instead of opening hardware designs when the work is essentially complete, Microsoft will contribute “next-generation cloud hardware designs when they are approx. 50% complete – much earlier in the cycle than any previous OCP project” says Vaid.
“By sharing designs that are actively in development, Project Olympus will allow the community to contribute to the ecosystem by downloading, modifying, and forking the hardware design just like open-source software.”
In case you think Microsoft is only doing this because OCP hardware designs really aren’t important to its Azure cloud, think again. Vaid said, “over 90% of the servers we currently purchase are based on OCP contributed specifications.”
Bill Carter, the Open Compute Project Foundation’s CTO, applauded Microsoft’s move, saying it opens “the door to a new era of open-source hardware development. Project Olympus, the re-imagined collaboration model and the way they’re bringing it to market, is unprecedented in the history of OCP and open source datacenter hardware.”
As Ed Anderson, Gartner’s Research VP of Cloud Services, told me, “This is a reflection of what the Open Compute Project was designed to do – share hardware design in an open community where all can contribute and benefits from the innovations.”
What’s most interesting, he said, is that “Microsoft is effectively sharing the design of the servers used in their hyperscale cloud business. It’s great for hardware manufacturers because they can benefit from the design, but it’s also good for the industry at large.”
Anderson continued, “Hyperscale cloud services represent the fastest-growing segment of the IT market. It makes sense to foster an open community focused on innovating the technologies needed to support these new environments.”
Well, yes, it does, but to the old Microsoft it would have made a lot of sense to keep all this secret datacenter server design sauce to itself. Things have changed in Redmond!
As for the project itself, Project Olympus will include a new universal motherboard; high-availability power supply with included batteries; 1U/2U server chassis; high-density storage expansion; a new universal rack power distribution unit (PDU) for global datacenter interoperability; and a standards compliant rack management card. To enable customer choice and flexibility, these modular building blocks can be used independently to meet specific datacenter configurations.
The goal is to create datacenter hardware that can keep pace with the cloud’s tremendous growth. It will also support a broad spectrum of workloads, including emerging cloud services, and enable easy scaling across global datacenter regions.
And all of this will be coming from Microsoft taking a leading role in open source. While many open-source fans doubt Microsoft’s sincerity, I think it’s clear that as the cloud, not Windows, becomes Microsoft’s most important revenue stream, the company is trading in its proprietary ways for the open-source approach.