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Developing countries and Open Compute

Open Compute ProjectDuring a panel discussion after the recent Facebook Open Compute announcement, a couple of panelists — Jason Waxman, GM in Intel's server platforms group, and Forrest Norrod, VP and GM of Dell's server platform — indicated the project could be beneficial to developing countries. Waxman said:

The reality is, you walk into data centers in emerging countries and it's a 2-kilowatt rack and there's maybe three servers in that rack, and the whole data center is powered inefficiently — their air is going every which way and it's hot, it's cold. It costs a lot. It's not ecologically conscious. By opening up this platform and by building awareness of what the best practices are in how to build a data center, how to make efficient servers and why you should care about building efficient servers and how to densely populate into a rack, there are a lot of places ... that can benefit from this type of information.

In a similar vein, Norrod said:

I think what you're going to see happen here is an opportunity for those Internet companies in the developing world to take a leap forward, jumping over the last 15 years of learnings, and exploiting the most efficient data center and server designs that we have today.

The developing countries angle intrigued me, so I sent an email to Benetech founder and CEO Jim Fruchterman to get his take. Fruchterman's company has a unique focus: apply the "intellectual capital and resources of Silicon Valley" to create solutions around the world for a variety of social problems. Recent projects have focused on human rights, literacy, and the development of the Miradi nature conservation project software.

His verdict? While efficient data centers are useful, they're secondary to pressing issues like infrastructure, reliable power, and basic literacy.

Fruchterman's reply follows:

JimFruchterman.jpgWhile I'm excited about an open initiative coming from Facebook, I'm not so sure that its impact on developing countries will be all that significant in the foreseeable future. Watching the announcement video, I didn't find these words coming out of the Facebook teams' mouths, but instead the Intel and Dell panelists. And, their comments focused mostly on India, China and Brazil — not exactly your typical "developing" countries.

The good news is, of course, that these open plans show how to reduce energy and acquisition costs per compute cycle. So, anyone building a data center can build a cheaper and lower power data center. That's great. But, building data centers is probably not on the top of the wish lists of most developing countries. Telecom and broadband infrastructure, reliable power (at the grid level, not the server power supply level), end-user device cost and reliability, localization, and even basic literacy seem to be more crucial to these communities. And, most of these factors are prerequisites to investing significantly in data centers.

Of course, our biggest concerns around Facebook are around free speech, anonymous speech, and the protection of human rights defenders. Facebook is increasingly a standard part of global user experience, and we think that it's crucial that Facebook get in front of these concerns, rather than being inadvertently a tool of repressive governments. We're glad that groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have been working with Facebook and seeing progress, but we need more.

Fruchterman's response was edited and condensed.


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