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Apple has been 'quietly' involved in one of Facebook's most important tech projects

Tim CookREUTERS/Robert GalbraithApple CEO Tim Cook speaks during a presentation at A

What started as a crazy idea inside Facebook a few years ago has become a full-blown phenom: the Open Compute Project.

And on Tuesday, during the project’s U.S. customer conference, the guy responsible for OCP revealed an interesting fact: Apple has been quietly working with the project and has now decided to publicly join it.

“Apple is a new member,” Frank Frankovsky, chairman and president of the project told the audience, as he read off a long list of new members.

“Apple has been involved in this project quietly for a very long time. A lot of people know Apple as a consumer tech company. But they also have excellent infrastructure engineering people. If you look at what they build online, it’s quite substantial,” he says.

Apple’s involvement is interesting because it means that Facebook’s project, which aims to revolutionise the computer hardware industry the way the Linux operating system changed the software industry, now involves nearly all the biggest cloud/internet companies in the world.

Microsoft leads the way

Satya nadella seahawks@satyanadella, TwitterMicrosoft CEO Satya Nadella

This project is inventing new kinds of hardware including servers, storage, and networking switches that are faster and cheaper to build and maintain, particularly for huge cloud companies like Facebook.

Most importantly, its hardware designs are free and “open source,” meaning anyone can use them, modify them, and send out to a contract manufacturer, and contribute their technology back to the group.

This is unique in the industry. Other cloud providers build their own hardware too, like Google and Amazon, but they keep their designs close to their chest.

A year ago, the OCP project made waves when Microsoft joined it, Frankovsky acknowledged.

“When we announced Microsoft as a new member I think a lot of people in the community were were sceptical. Why is Microsoft here? Is it like a marketing effort? Will they actually contribute? I can tell you the Microsoft team has contributed not only so much time, but also so much intellectual property, that it’s fantastic. Thank you, Microsoft,” he said.

Will Apple do the same?

Microsoft, of course, has a huge need for the kind of cloud-friendly hardware OCP creates. It has a gigantic and growing number of internet data centres that run things like the Bing search engine, Office 365, its Amazon competitor Azure, and a lot of other online services.

Apple has the same need. Its data centres run things like iTunes, Siri, iCloud and its online Microsoft Office competitor, iWork for iCloud.

If Apple gets as involved as Microsoft, contributing hardware designs and software, this project will blow up the traditional tech companies selling servers the old fashioned way.

It’s working

In actuality, that’s already happening.

OCP hardware has a growing number of other happy customers who are talking publicly about buying their hardware this way. Earlier this week, Bank of America told the Wall Street Journal that it plans to use OCP for 80% of its data center needs by 2018.

Frankovsky says that companies can save up 50% over buying computer servers the traditional way. BofA joins other big name customers like Goldman Sachs, who is on the board of OCP.

And it’s working. The hardware industry is being revolutionised. Not only are there Taiwanese contract manufactures standing by to build OCP servers, but the traditional vendors like HP and Dell have OCP servers that anyone can buy.

HP even announced at the conference that it has a whole new line of OCP cloud-friendly servers for sale, built with via its expanded partnership with China contract manufacturer Foxconn.

Even IBM is on board

IBM Ginni RomettyIBMIBM CEO Ginni Rometty

IBM has been doing a similar thing with its OpenPower project. OpenPower is an open source project to get people to design servers around its Power CPU chip, a competitor to the Intel x86 chips used in most OCP servers.

Google is famously using OpenPower to build its own cloud servers.

Now, cloud company Rackspace, along with IBM and others, are building servers that uses the OpenPower chip and follows all the other OCP designs, Frankovsky says.

Between the open source hardware chip and the open-source everything else, Frankovsky says this server is “the most open architecture than we have ever seen,” he says. It’s “a server that has gobs and gobs of memory” and can host more computer applications than “ever before.”

The ultimate goal of all of this?

“I don’t want to even acknowledge the fact that there is an industry norm that needs to be adhered to. Let’s just blow that the hell up and start over. What I’ve seen over the last four years in this community, is that people are listening,” Frankovsky says.

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