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Microsoft provides data center 'blueprints' to Open Compute Project

Jeremy Stanley

Enterprise IT shops building massive internal clouds now have access to the scalable proprietary hardware designs that Microsoft built to power its own cloud services.

Microsoft said this week it will contribute reference designs to the Open Compute Project, a Facebook Inc.-run initiative for open standards within data center hardware designs.

The company will provide the specification for data center servers described as a "blueprint" for its own data center hardware it uses for cloud services such as Azure and Office 365, the company said during this week's

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Open Compute Project Summit in San Jose, Calif.

The hardware system provides standardized interoperability at the blade, chassis and rack level by modularizing the interfaces between these components, according to a whitepaper on Microsoft's website.

"It is mainly advantageous for huge companies building at scale, as both Facebook and Microsoft are now directly sharing their experiences with manufacturers to make the hardware design itself better," said Jonathan Hassell, president of Charlotte, N.C.-based consulting firm 82 Ventures and SearchWindowsServer.com contributor. "Most of these improvements are for massive implementations."

Along with the hardware specification, Microsoft is making the Chassis Manager software open source and available on the GitHub repository via Microsoft Open Technologies Inc., a subsidiary the company launched in 2012 to advance openness, including interoperability with other technologies.

The move is likely motivated by the idea that contributing could mean Microsoft gets something, like more efficiencies, in return.

"Microsoft does nothing out of the goodness of their own heart, so there is clearly a benefit to them here of having more sources for hardware supplies for Azure/365 data centers that match their own design wish list," said Hassell.

Microsoft's open designs included in patent applications?

In mid-December, a Microsoft patent application for a blade server design surfaced, showing a design similar to the specs released to the OCP. The patent has yet to be granted.

When asked whether that patent is the same design it offered to the open community this week, Microsoft said it is innovating server architecture for its data centers, including around blades and chasses, and contributing these specifications under the Open Web Foundation agreements, which provide rights under Microsoft patents for implementers.

Despite the open-source nature, there are still benefits to patenting these designs.

"Intellectual property rights are not necessarily incompatible with open systems; they can be used to advance them," said Kara Swanson, associate professor of law at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass.

"The patentee can license others to make, use, sell or import, exclusively or nonexclusively. It can charge a set fee or a per-item royalty, license in exchange for a cross-license, or license for nothing at all. The choice is theirs," Swanson said.


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