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A Journey to Open Compute

Yesterday, hosted the Open Compute Meetup in Amsterdam. My talk is on Slideshare and a recording is on Youtube.

A cleaned up and more coherent transcript of the talk is here: started out as a small online travel agency in Amsterdam, but is now financially about 15% of Google. We have about 200 offices in 70 countries, support 46 languages and reach about any touristically interesting spot on this planet. We started out selling rooms on a comission basis, but since the Priceline Group of companies also includes Priceline for flights, Rentalcars for, well rental cars, and Open Table for restaurants, it makes sense to integrate that more and graduate from a Hotel Room marketplace to something more complete, a full trip or complete experience marketplace.

At this point we have about 30k machines in 3 locations. That’s commodity colo space, built to Uptime Institute Tier-3 standards. In that are mostly two-die E5-type machines, and it’s at the two extreme ends of the spectrum, E5-2620’s and E5-2690’s. We would like to be able to run on the 2620 stuff  completely, of course, but some parts of our application require the clock and the Oomph of the large CPUs. We are working on that.


The part of the workload that actually earns us money is mostly replacing strings taken from a database in HTML templates, we are a REP MOVSB company. That’s boring work, and that is good. We try to keep stuff in memory where possible, especially where customer facing machines are affected. No disk reads, and no rotating storage in customer facing work.

There is more complicated stuff in the background. We are running the usual big data stuff with added deep learning on top, in image processing, fraud detection and in experimental user interfaces. We host a large scale data movement infrastructure with MySQL, Elasticsearch, Cassandra and Hadoop being involved.

We are trying very hard to be customer centric. Technology is seen as a necessity, but it’s forced upon us by size. We’d rather focus on the hotel thing. :-) A lot of stuff is recent, due to growth – Moore’s law also applies backwards.

Speaking about growth:

There are a few old numbers taken from quarterly public company performance reports, roomnights and hotels. But it could be about any metric at Booking, servers, requests, people working there, meals served in the canteen or sum of database requests – you would see the same curve.

On a log-Y scale it’s even nicer:

Some nice straight lines. If I were to draw the yearly increase in compute power as given by Moores law into this graph, you would see that this is also a mostly flat line, unfortunately one that is raising far slower that the other lines here. For a scalability person like me it means a tough life.

Drawing the lines out naively sees us covering the earth in data centers by 2040 or so. That’s a problem, because where are we going to put the hotels?

Of course that’s not going to happen, but it underlines that we need to change our ways of handling stuff.

Currently, we are handling the hardware part “enterprise’y”. So we get space, built out the room, add racks, switches and chassis and then put hardware in. That happens in waves, with different latency and mutual dependencies, and that can go wrong in many ways. On the other hand, it delays decisions and spending as long as possible. To us, being a very Dutch company with a very high volatility due to the growth, delaying such Capex as long as possible is attractive.

Once the Hardware is down, we are on top of things – we have a system of software components called ServerDB which basically enables full hardware lifecycle management, interfacing at the front with the Purchase Orders database, doing everything a user could want to do to a machine with API and Web Interfaces, and finalizing machine lifetime many times later with a decommissioning workflow.

ServerDB not only manages the hardware, it also has complete overview about all other assets, does the config management for switches, storage, collects power data and temperature information and links into monitoring, load balancer configuration and to puppet.

Using commercial colo space means many constraints. We are in small rooms, multiple 0.5MW sizes, and that creates a number of placement constraints and unwanted cabling requirements. The power and cooling framework we have to live in is about 7kW/rack, which is about half of what we want.

Look at the image, that’s a blade center that has the potential to create 6.4kW of power draw under full load, so you are looking at non-oversubscribed racks that are 10/40U full. That’s about knee high.

Here is a test run of a single blade from that bladecenter, where I am exercising all the cores as hard as possible, recording the power draw. We reach 50% power draw at 6/56 cores busy, and using the maximum power draw, times 16 blades, gives me a total load of 6.4kW from the whole enclosure.

Similarly, here is a rack of 32 machines (actually 40, but I got only 32 due to LOM instabilities), exercising at full power. These are hadoop units, and I can get them to consume 15kW in a 7kW environment, hotspotting and oversubscribing hard.

Some constraints border on the ridiculous, but when we are receiving a monthly delivery in individual parts, we spam the unloading and docking areas of the data center with unpacking trash, making the other tenants quite angry. Also, the build times are getting unwieldy.

Finally, the LOM, which is our gateway into the machinery for ServerDB and it’s assorted tools, is a big problem.

ServerDB contains an abstraction layer that tries to hide the various differences in functionality and API between the various kinds of machinery we have. We could do without that just fine, and Redfish is actually a partial fix to that.

Despite the fact that we do not use many features, still ServerDB utilizes Redfish, native vendor specific LOM functionality and ssh to get what it needs – Power control, Reset, and setting boot preferences, optionally firmware update and optionally partitioning and controller setup. We collect metrics: power, temperature, cooling and faults, but that is purely read-only.

Auditability is becoming more relevant – making config changes without a visible interruption of production is actually arguably a disadvantage, and all the recents security problems all the way down the stack are worrying us: LOM, ME and Microcode issues now.

Much of that is underdocumented, and there are way to many way too convenient ways to access this, from dedicated interfaces to shared interfaces to local gateways when you physically on the machine and have access to i2c buses or similar. The defaults are often insecure, the crypto is often outdated, and the client requirements are often insecure as well (“Install a Java version your security department will hate you for having on your machine.”).

So where do we got from here?

What is required to graduate from this?

Three issues need adressing: Going Rack Scale, Bringing volume up and Getting Rooms to match. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

We started ordering hardware by the blade center chassis. That did good: It solves many of the trash issues, it streamlines the late provisioning phase where we are putting actual hardware into the rack.

It’s limited by what can go into a chassis, and the chassis we are using are going to be discontinued. We understand why that is necessary, but the direction that is going to is not what we want.

We could do this more, and start to order by the rack. That has a few requirements that I will be adressing later, but if you are planning this, the choice is basically between Intel Rack Scale Design derivatives or Open Compute. It gives you more design flexibility, and it may or may not retain the savings in power and cooling from shared power/cooling setup depending on what you do.

The Intel RSD solution is available in many vendor flavors, HP, Dell and Supermicro all have them. It gives you a Pod and a Rack controller not unlike a bladecenter chassis controller. On top of the functionality that ServerDB already offers, you get a chassis or rack-wide PCI bus, and composable hardware, where you can built physical machine configurations from CPU and storage modules in the rack.

Some companies like Dell even offer casings around the machinery, in the form of semi-transportable data centers. Unfortunately most of these solutions try to minimise space and maximise density, so they come with other constraints and design decisions that we are reluctant to take on – basically you have to live in units of 8x8x40 ft shipping containers, and that’s rather limiting.

It’s all nifty engineering, but all very vendor specific and bespoke, when we are really looking for bulk hardware, all as alike as possible, and with fewer features, not more. Having NO DIFFERENTIATOR is actually a feature we are looking for. Value add subtracts from the value from the value the machinery has for us.

The actual value add happens higher up the stack, in software – in management for us that’s ServerDB and in production for us that is more or less Kubernetes or something that does what K8s does, but different.

And that’s exactly the sales promise from Open Compute. Clean, bare server designs without value add. Documented interfaces with source code available to read up on the details, so we can integrate our stuff without problems. Delivery by the rack, and on top of that, potential operational and capital savings, if you treat room and rack as a system.

Getting the volume up is the next important consideration, and if we are looking at our machine park, that’s going to be a problem.

If you go into ServerDB and count machine profile, it goes up to 11: blade 9 and two additional blade2 variants. Actually digging into this yields basically ‘large and small’ CPU configs and memory configs, but lots of different local storage options.

The answer is, to quote Jello Biafra, obvious: Ban Everything!

In our case, local storage. So we disaggregate:

In a rack design where we give a 2OU, 500W, 100GBit slot to the storage people and provide un-RAID-ed 2B local SSD as the only storage option, we have to build a network to match this. We are anticipating more east-west traffic from storage replication and east-west traffic from storage acess.

All of that is happening front-side, production, on regular TCP/IP. But that means I have only one network topology to scale and maintain, and I have no longer placement constraints for workloads: I can build uniform compute, and demand “no local persistence”. If you wan to keep your MySQL datadir, put it on iSCSI, RoCE or NVME via TCP and be done with it.

It will be the size and have the properties you require, it will be at least up to par with local SSD and it will still be there when your machine dies and you are rescheduling to another spare machine elsewhere in another rack.

With Kubernetes on top, you get application mobility, resiliency, and capacity size adjustment, which is fine, because even the smallest Silver 4110 is going to be too large for most units of deployment (in Java, consider 8 cores, 16 GB of RAM to be a limit, for example).

Being able to pull that off will give us 4 profiles or less, disk made to measure as requested, location independence for applications, and the ability to upgrade hardware without interfering with the workload. I can evacuate a rack, do my thing and put it back into service. Also, I can interchange the components of my machinery independently: storage, memory, compute and the networking parts are separate and can be on different renewal cycles. All of that bound together by on single TCP/IP network, not some bespoke PCI or FC/AL stuff.

Assuming I all have that, I will need rooms to match the rack in order to fully leverage the advantages of Open Compute.

Open Compute hardware is built to be able to run in a barn: concrete floor, air-in of up to 35 or 40 deg Centigrade, hot-aisle containment, all service from the front because data center operations engineers cannot survive in the hot aisle, and we can do away with most of the equipment that is part of a Tier-3 spec.

It is being said that 1 MW of Tier-3 spec costs about 10 million for the empty building shell, and that we can get OCP space built for 2.5 Million/MW according to Facebook. I will be happy if I can get space for half of the Tier-3 cost or less.

Non of these savings will materialize if you put OCP into a traditional Tier-3 building – the power path is not simplified, the air-in is overcooled and the airco is overdesigned in order to achive the overcooling which we do no longer require, so the actual PUE is actually way worse than what we could have from an OCP compliant data center.

We do get Tier-3 space easily, though. That is because it is being built without a buyers name on the constract. Buyers and sellers meet later, and that is possible over the Tier-3 spec from Uptime. The result is a two sided market, where demand and supply are anonymous, unknown at the time the supply is being built.

That is not possible at the moment with Open Compute, because the spec is lacking, not well known to builders and the demand is not worth building for it. If you need or want OCP compliant space, that’s a larger commitment, because the space is being built for you, and you will need to keep it for the building lifetime.

So having an OCP compliant data center build spec for OCP hardware is important to make OCP attractive to smaller deployments. They do need the quick availability and higher flexibility of prebuilt space, because that’s lowering the height of the commitment and provides fewer operative distractions.

There is risk for the space provider, so it’s certainly higher cost than a data center build to spec for one named entity, but that’s probably worth it. For a deployment our size, there is still the problem of many 0.5MW rooms or similar, capacity fragmentation, but for a more normal sized company that’s actually a non-issue. They can be happy in these spaces.

So to sum it up again: How can OCP work on non-hyperscaler scales?

Provide a two sided market for DC space over a shared spec, then put hardware in there that matches what the room provides. This creates operational and capital savings from leveraging the room and the rack as a system that is mutually dependent and built for each other.

Then, once you have stuff in there, have an ecosystem that uses the documented machine interfaces, all of them interchangeable and interoperable. Have an ecosystem of open source management modules like ServerDB for management and Kubernetes for production, built on top of that, in order to bring utilisation up and management cost down.

Published inConferences and EventsData CentersWork

One Comment

  1. William Shih

    Interesting presentations of Data Center’s growth and attention requirments

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