Patent Wars may Chill Data Center Innovation

Yahoo may have just sent a cold chill across the data center industry at large and begun a stifling of data center innovation.  In a May 3, 2012 article, Forbes did a quick and dirty analysis on the patent wars between Facebook and Yahoo. It’s a quick read but shines an interesting light on the potential impact something like this can have across the industry.   The article, found here,  highlights that :

In a new disclosure, Facebook added in the latest version of the filing that on April 23 Yahoo sent a letter to Facebook indicating that Yahoo believes it holds 16 patents that “may be relevant” to open source technology Yahoo asserts is being used in Facebook’s data centers and servers.

While these types of patent infringement cases happen all the time in the Corporate world, this one could have far greater ramifications on an industry that has only recently emerged into the light of sharing of ideas.    While details remain sketchy at the time of this writing, its clear that the specific call out of data center and servers is an allusion to more than just server technology or applications running in their facilities.  In fact, there is a specific call out of data centers and infrastructure. 

With this revelation one has to wonder about its impact on the Open Compute Project which is being led by Facebook.   It leads to some interesting questions. Has their effort to be more open in their designs and approaches to data center operations and design led them to a position of risk and exposure legally?  Will this open the flood gates for design firms to become more aggressive around functionality designed into their buildings?  Could companies use their patents to freeze competitors out of colocation facilities in certain markets by threatening colo providers with these types of lawsuits?  Perhaps I am reaching a bit but I never underestimate litigious fervor once the  proverbial blood gets in the water. 

In my own estimation, there is a ton of “prior art”, to use an intellectual property term, out there to settle this down long term, but the question remains – will firms go through that lengthy process to prove it out or opt to re-enter their shells of secrecy?  

After almost a decade of fighting to open up the collective industry to share technologies, designs, and techniques this is a very disheartening move.   The general Glasnost that has descended over the industry has led to real and material change for the industry.  

We have seen the mental shift of companies move from measuring facilities purely around “Up Time” measurements to one that is primarily more focused around efficiency as well.  We have seen more willingness to share best practices and find like minded firms to share in innovation.  One has to wonder, will this impact the larger “greening” of data centers in general.   Without that kind of pressure – will people move back to what is comfortable?

Time will certainly tell.   I was going to make a joke about the fact that until time proves out I may have to “lawyer” up just to be safe.  Its not really a joke however because I’m going to bet other firms do something similar and that, my dear friends, is how the innovation will start to freeze.

 

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Open Sourcing our Operational Scale Tools–Meet Trigger

Not that long ago we made a decision to begin Open Sourcing some of our internal products and tools into the community at large.   There are some really interesting benefits for open sourcing some of these internally developed tools and as a company we begun to do some very interesting work in this space.  Some of our work has gotten quite a bit of attention such as SocketStream which is a very fast, real time web framework. 

Today I am very pleased to announce that we are open-sourcing one of the tools that we use to manage and maintain our network infrastructure.   We call it Trigger.  

Trigger is a Python framework and suite of tools for interfacing with network devices and managing network configuration and security policy. Trigger was specifically internally designed to increase the speed and efficiency of network configuration management.

Trigger’s core device interaction utilizes the freely available Twisted event-driven networking engine. The libraries can connect to network devices by any available method (e.g. telnet, SSH), communicate with them in their native interface (e.g. Juniper JunoScript, Cisco IOS), and return output. Trigger is able to manage any number of jobs in parallel and handle output or errors as they return.

If you think a tool like this would be interesting for you or your company feel free to give it a try.  The Open Source repository for it can be found here at :https://github.com/aol/trigger

For the complete set of documentation is hosted at ReadtheDocs:

http://readthedocs.org/docs/trigger

This is just the first of many internal efforts and tools that we plan to Open Source.  I will announce more tools in the coming months that have helped AOL to scale over the years.  Stay tuned!

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Open Source Data Center Initiative

There are many in the data center industry that have repeatedly called for change in this community of ours.  Change in technology, change in priorities, Change for the future.  Over the years we have seen those changes come very slowly and while they are starting to move a little faster now, (primarily due to the economic conditions and scrutiny over budgets more-so than a desire to evolve our space) our industry still faces challenges and resistance to forward progress.   There are lots of great ideas, lots of forward thinking, but moving this work to execution and educating business leaders as well as data center professionals to break away from those old stand by accepted norms has not gone well.

That is why I am extremely happy to announce my involvement with the University of Missouri in the launch of a Not-For-Profit Data Center specific organization.   You might have read the formal announcement by Dave Ohara who launched the news via his industry website, GreenM3.   Dave is another of of those industry insiders who has long been perplexed by the lack of movement and initiative we have had on some great ideas and stand outs doing great work.  More importantly, it doesn’t stop there.  We have been able to put together quite a team of industry heavy-weights to get involved in this effort.  Those announcements are forthcoming, and when they do, I think you will get a sense of the type of sea-change this effort could potentially have.

One of the largest challenges we have with regards to data centers is education.   Those of you who follow my blog know that I believe that some engineering and construction firms are incented ‘not to change’ or implementing new approaches.  The cover of complexity allows customers to remain in the dark while innovation is stifled. Those forces who desire to maintain an aura of black box complexity  around this space and repeatedly speak to the arcane arts of building out  data center facilities have been at this a long time.  To them, the interplay of systems requiring one-off monumental temples to technology on every single build is the norm.  Its how you maximize profit, and keep yourself in a profitable position. 

When I discussed this idea briefly with a close industry friend, his first question naturally revolved around how this work would compete with that of the Green Grid, or Uptime Institute, Data Center Pulse, or the other competing industry groups.  Essentially  was this going to be yet another competing though-leadership organization.  The very specific answer to this is no, absolutely not.   

These groups have been out espousing best practices for years.  They have embraced different technologies, they have tried to educate the industry.  They have been pushing for change (for the most part).  They do a great job of highlighting the challenges we face, but for the most part have waited around for universal good will and monetary pressures to make them happen.  It dawned on us that there was another way.   You need to ensure that you build something that gains mindshare, that gets the business leadership attention, that causes a paradigm shift.   As we put the pieces together we realized that the solution had to be credible, technical, and above all have a business case around it.   It seemed to us the parallels to the Open Source movement and the applicability of the approach were a perfect match.

To be clear, this Open Source Data Center Initiative is focused around execution.   Its focused around putting together an open and free engineering framework upon which data center designs, technologies, and the like can be quickly put together and more-over standardize the approaches that both end-users and engineering firms approach the data center industry. 

Imagine if you will a base framework upon which engineering firms, or even individual engineers can propose technologies and designs, specific solution vendors could pitch technologies for inclusion and highlight their effectiveness, more over than all of that it will remove much mystery behind the work that happens in designing facilities and normalize conversations.    

If you think of the Linux movement, and all of those who actively participate in submitting enhancements, features, even pulling together specific build packages for distribution, one could even see such things emerging in the data center engineering realm.   In fact with the myriad of emerging technologies assisting in more energy efficiency, greater densities, differences in approach to economization (air or water), use of containers or non use of containers, its easy to see the potential for this component based design.  

One might think that we are effectively trying to put formal engineering firms out of business with this kind of work.  I would argue that this is definitely not the case.  While it may have the effect of removing some of the extra-profit that results from the current ‘complexity’ factor, this initiative should specifically drive common requirements, and lead to better educated customers, drive specific standards, and result in real world testing and data from the manufacturing community.  Plus, as anyone knows who has ever actually built a data center, the devil is in the localization and details.  Plus as this is an open-source initiative we will not be formally signing the drawings from a professional engineering perspective. 

Manufacturers could submit their technologies, sample application of their solutions, and have those designs plugged into a ‘package’ or ‘RPM’ if I could steal a term from the Redhat Linux nomenclature.  Moreover, we will be able to start driving true visibility of costs both upfront and operating and associate those costs with the set designs with differences and trending from regions around the world.  If its successful, it could be a very good thing.  

We are not naive about this however.  We certainly expect there to be some resistance to this approach out there and in fact some outright negativity from those firms that make the most of the black box complexity components. 

We will have more information on the approach and what it is we are trying to accomplish very soon.  

 

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