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In the Data Center Business, Open Source Is More Relevant Than Ever

Businesses anchored in the physical, too, have a lot to gain from participating in community driven, collaborative engineering.

Headshot of Yevgeniy Sverdlik
Yevgeniy Sverdlik
In the Data Center Business, Open Source Is More Relevant Than Ever

If you’re in the data center business, you may be aware of the two prominent hardware-centric open source initiatives: the Open Compute Project, born at Facebook, and Open19, born at LinkedIn. Those are important—the former has altered the entire industry in profound ways, while the latter, being much younger, has moved the needle at a handful of companies (including Equinix)—and, because the data center space is mostly concerned with the physical, it’s easy to assume that they are pretty much the extent of the industry’s open source action. It may seem that data center businesses have little to gain from the open source software movement.

Not so—even if you ignore the fact that IaaS cloud providers are essentially data center companies that have drawn on tons of open source software to build nice APIs for their computer-populated real estate. The concept of community driven, collaborative software development has too many benefits for data center operators of all ilks to ignore, and the push toward consuming and providing nearly everything as a service has made it crucial.

An Open Source Tool for All Businesses, Including Data Centers

The benefits of open source for a data center company are no different from its benefits for a software company. First, there are common problems that can be better solved collectively and whose solutions don’t help a business stand out in the market. Kill Bill, the open source billing and payments platform, is a perfect illustration. Equinix Metal has invested a lot of engineering resources in the project (which was born at Groupon) and even hired some of its maintainers. The mechanics of its billing system don’t help a data center provider win business, but a data center provider can’t exist without a functional billing system.

“There’s not a lot of differentiated value in, ‘Did I deliver you your bill, and was it accurate?’ But it’s super important,” Jacob Smith, who heads strategy and marketing at Equinix Metal, said during a recent virtual panel discussion, organized by DCD. At its core, Kill Bill does the same things for Equinix as it does for Groupon, Square, CARFAX, or any other company using it. It’s the domain-specific ways in which these companies are using it where that “differentiated value” lies.

Shweta Saraf, who heads Equinix Metal’s engineering organization, spent many years working for various cloud providers and saw firsthand how much of a difference a simple billing experience can make. “Cloud billing is a competitive advantage, period,” she said during the same panel discussion. Cloud billing is notoriously complicated. There are now consultants who exist just to help companies decipher their cloud bills and find ways to reduce costs. Taking that pain away often translates to customers who don’t leave for another provider.

Providing data center services is highly nuanced, which should be reflected in a data center provider’s billing model. The providers charge for space, for power, for bandwidth, for compute and storage, for remote hands, and so on. Equinix Metal has built and contributed these domain-specific components to the Kill Bill project. Its billing system tracks thousands of line items every billing cycle, looking at each server’s usage, and passes the data to its Kill Bill-based billing engine. It then applies its “secret sauce,” Saraf explained. That's things like regional pricing, customer-specific pricing, products disaggregated and coupled in different ways, subscriptions, credits, discounts, etc. Coming out the other end is an elegant presentation of all the resources a customer consumed in the previous month that they’re being billed for.

What Customers Pay You For

Another good example is Tinkerbell, the bare metal provisioning and management engine born at Packet (which became Equinix Metal after being acquired by the data center provider). Metal open sourced Tinkerbell in 2020, and it’s currently a Cloud Native Computing Foundation Sandbox project. At first, it may seem surprising that Metal would open source a piece of technology at the very heart of what it does. After all, it’s in the business of providing bare metal computing infrastructure on demand, made possible by Tinkerbell’s automation capabilities.

But the ability to automate computers well isn’t what makes Equinix stand out in the market, Smith said. That’s not what customers pay Equinix to do—they expect that piece to work. Its differentiated value is in the places where those computers are and how they’re interconnected.

By open sourcing the provisioning engine, Equinix—and whoever else decides to use it—gets to leverage the outside engineering muscle applied to the technology, making it more robust and more capable.

All companies that provide infrastructure as a service need a way to automate hardware provisioning and management. They also need a way to bill their customers. Open source projects like Tinkerbell and Kill Bill give them a head start, enabling them to focus on innovation instead of building basic capabilities from scratch. And the innovation they contribute back to the projects benefits everyone using them, said Marques Johansson, Equinix Metal’s principal engineer, integrations, who was also on the panel. “I love that we [open sourced Tinkerbell], and I can see how it benefits other folks,” he said. “Because I’ve worked on the same lines of code, in a slightly different language, for a slightly different domain name.”

Rallying Around Common Goals

Besides the ways in which open source technology can give a business a serious head start, open source has powerful standardizing effects. Communities tend to rally and grow around good open source projects, which leads to adjacent technologies being built to interoperate with them and to vendors making their products compatible.

Today, this aspect of open source is playing a big role in the growing adoption of hybrid multicloud architectures. “Any SaaS, or any company that is cloud native wants to talk to more than one cloud,” Saraf said. Open frameworks, standards, and technologies like OpenConfig, gNMI, gRPC, and Open vSwitch can enable a company to build a vendor-agnostic network that can talk to different cloud platforms.

Having code repositories for important technologies out in public can also improve security. With layers upon layers of abstraction in tech stacks that run today’s businesses, security mechanisms also get abstracted, Johansson pointed out. “That’s where, on the open source side, you get the benefit of a community of people thinking about the problem,” he said. “It’s not this closed model where we can just assume that trust is there. The trust is there if it’s visible.”

Just Show Up

Starting to participate in the open source community doesn’t require making a hefty contribution like an entire billing and payments system or a server automation platform. In addition to investing in Kill Bill and Tinkerbell, Equinix engineers contribute in various ways to other projects that are relevant to its business. Johansson’s team makes regular contributions to projects like Kubernetes, kube-vip, and Akraino.

A good place to start is with your own problems and your own area of expertise, Smith suggested, and then think about your differentiated value and whether or not it would really suffer if you helped the community solve a common problem.

Published on

12 February 2022


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