Last week, Facebook’s extraordinary three-year-old Open Compute Project passed yet another milestone: it spawned its first commercial startup led by one of the people who helped birth the organisation.
And the startup, named Coolan, is following very closely in OCP’s game-changing footsteps.
Coolan was founded by Amir Michael, the former leader of Facebook’s hardware design team who worked with Jay Park to build Facebook’s Prineville data center, one of the greenest data centres ever designed. (And much of it was designed on a napkin, too … read on.)
Amir’s younger brother Yoni Michael is his cofounder, along with early Facebook employee-turned-VC Jonathan Heiliger, who has financially backed the company and is acting as an advisor. (Heiliger is well known as the guy that helped create Facebook’s sturdy IT systems, which serve up billions of likes, photos, chats and whatnot each month.)
Coolan has other backers, too, including Northwest Ventures and Chamath Palihapitiya’s fund, The Social + Capital Partnership. Palihapitiya is one of Facebook’s earliest employees, now a VC, who has since backed of a long list of startups.
Amir won’t disclose how much funding he has raised, except to tell us he landed a “a good healthy seed round.” When we pressed he told us this story: As the big brother, Amir wouldn’t let Yoni quit his job at another startup to join him at Coolan until he was SURE he “was onto something.”
A child of OCP
Since 2012, we’ve been documenting Facebook’s OPC project, which aims to revolutionise the computer hardware industry the way the Linux operating system changed the software industry.
The project is inventing new kinds of hardware including servers, storage, networking switches that are faster and cheaper to build and maintain, particularly for huge cloud companies like Facebook.
And its hardware designs are free and “open source” meaning anyone can use them, modify them and send out to a contract manufacturer. 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.
The open source hardware concept has been wildly successful for this project. Since OCP launched, it has attracted a whole ecosystem, with hundreds of people contributing to the hardware designs. Companies like HP, Dell, and Cisco have become major sponsors (and at times, have been seriously threatened by it), and big players like like Microsoft and Goldman Sachs are using these designs in their own data centres and sit on the governing board. It has even inspired at least one teenager, Peter Thiel Fellow to launch a startup in OCP’s image.
The designs it created have saved Facebook $US1 billion, Mark Zuckerberg said in early 2014.
Other users, like streaming gaming company Riot Games, say OCP products have cut costs in half, too, the OCP Foundation says.
The crowd speaks and vendors must listen
But until now, the leaders of the OCP project haven’t found a way to cash in.
The idea for this startup was actually formed long before Amir’s four or so years of experience running the hardware design team at Facebook. He cut his teeth for six years designing computer servers for Google.
During that decade of inventing hardware, he faced the same frustration over and over again.
Once the fabulous new hardware is built, what’s the best way to configure and set it up for different kinds of applications?
A server that will be used to host big files like photos needs to be set up differently than one for a database.
The best answer: Ask someone.
“What OCP showed us was that the community aspect of this was really important,” Amir told us.
“You think about the problems people have, first it what servers should I buy? Should I buy OCP? Should I buy from Dell or another vendor? How do I debug it? I’m having errors, how do I solve it? How do I optimise? What’s the right temperature to run these at? What firmware should I use?”
Coolan is a software-as-a-service platform where IT pros can get such answers without having to rely on the tech support from their vendors.
“We’re adding more transparency to the industry where in the past, you have to rely on your vendors to help you,” Amir says.
Interestingly, in addition to selling this service to enterprise IT pros, Coolan will also sell it to the vendors. They will be able to tap into anonymized data from across countless servers to find out what’s working and what’s not.
With this kind of pedigree Coolan is being watched carefully. It has already grown from a team of two brothers to about 10 employees, Amir tells us.
It might be the first startup to come out of stealth from the Facebook OCP founders, but it won’t be the last.
The guy that was known as the founder and face of OCP, Frank Frankovsky, left Facebook a year ago to launch his own company, which is still in stealth. He remains a leader of OCP, and his company is creating working on an open source hardware optical storage product.
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