It's not that I'm super paranoid or even a really hard core conspiracy theorist. But the truth is that I've just watched far too many episodes of The X-Files to not have a natural tendency to always be questioning motives and trying to discern the reasons for people's actions beyond what is offered on the surface. So when I began reading about Facebook's Open Compute initiative and after I finished geeking out on some of the cooler technical details, my mind started wondering what else there might be to this announcement.
From a pure technical point of view, I loved reading about it. While a few of the accomplishments they list in their data center and hardware designs aren't entirely revolutionary or even all that new, there are a few that are definitely well beyond common design and which will assuredly influence and push the design of the next generation of data centers and hardware that is more commonly available. Likewise their achievements in more efficient energy usage are noteworthy and to be greatly applauded.
So why do it? Why open the kimono and publish all the specs to the world in a grand announcement? Most major players in the tech industry that have a significant stake in the data center arena take a very different and carefully guarded approach to what is typically considered valuable intellectual property and competitive advantage. From the hardware and software manufacturers to the data centers themselves to the utilities to the large service providers that leverage massive data centers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft this is a massive market worth billions of dollars. So why? Why? Why? Why?
For my $0.02, I think it comes down to three main things:
1. Diminish your competition's competitive advantage. Make something they consider a core competency more of a commodity. The real value of Facebook is in the services they provide to their users. Making the underlying infrastructure more of a commodity, no matter how high-performance, specialized, and sophisticated or cutting edge it is reduces advantage to be gained in that and forces the competition to focus more on the services being provided on top of it. It likewise also has the impact of reducing costs for that infrastructure and taking the open source approach allows them to influence the next generation of design in their favor.
2. I agree with former Tumblr CTO, Marco Arment, that this makes a statement to the best and brightest of the technical talent. In the battle for recruiting and retaining the best talent, Facebook just sent a major signal.
3. Here's my more controversial one which I'm kind of surprised I can't really find anyone else talking about- I think this was in many ways a serious PR move intended to counter-balance a lot of the bad press Facebook has received regarding privacy. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg have definitely been weathering their fair share of questions regarding the privacy of their users and the use of that data. I've written about my poor opinion of their privacy controls in the past. Of course, the reality is that the majority of Facebook users are anxiously and willingly handing over immense amounts of personal data to Facebook on a daily basis, don't really seem to be all that concerned about publishing a crazy amount of personal data and details every day, and at the end of the day the essential nature and culture of the world of Facebook for its users is all about being extremely open about things we once kept pretty carefully guarded or at least confined more to our closer circles of friends and family. So by going public with this level of detailed information about what was previously considered a company's valuable and to-be-guarded "personal data", in many ways they embrace the same principles they extol for their users and embody in their platform. From a PR perspective it also makes a move to shift the perception of Facebook and Zuckerberg to huge contributors to the industry, champions of openness, and environmentally conscious members of society instead of massive violators of personal privacy. I'm not saying this is all it will take to shift those kinds of perceptions or that they won't continue to face such scrutiny. But I'd be surprised if this wasn't a significant factor in what they are doing here and the approach they have taken.
I'll stop short of conjecturing any relationship between Facebook and crop circles or alien-human hybrid breeding programs. I'll also certainly be spending time reading more and more on this project as the tech definitely fascinates me. Wearing just my CTO hat I think this kind of information sharing on such a topic is overall a good thing for the industry in which I work. But that doesn't mean a little healthy paranoia isn't a good thing.
Paul Hernacki, Chief Technology Officer, is responsible for direction and strategy with regard to the technologies used to design and implement solutions for Definition 6 clients. He can be reached at Paul.Hernacki@definition6.com.
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