Facebook's latest big idea: Group Hug

January 17, 2013: 1:55 PM ET

Forget search. Facebook's latest technological feat is—yeah—a motherboard.

130117065314-facebook-server-room-gallery-horizontalFORTUNE -- One day after announcing a search feature that lets users quickly find information through their network, Facebook (FB) unveiled another potentially disruptive product: An open-source circuit board for servers affectionately dubbed Group Hug. Not surprisingly  the aesthetically challenged piece of hardware generated much less hype than Facebook's earlier announcement. But could have just as much impact by changing the way data centers are built.

Why? Facebook's mother of all motherboards allows chips from different manufacturers to be inserted into a common slot. That means a single server could house competing architectures, like Intel's (INTC) x86 technology or designs from U.K.-based ARM Holdings (ARMH).  If adopted, Group Hug would be a radical shift in an industry that's known for building proprietary machines that don't tend to play nice together. And it could help pave the way for manufacturers of ARM-based chips to finally crack into servers, a market currently dominated by Intel.

The Group Hug motherboard was developed at Facebook, but the social networking company is "open-sourcing" it to the world through the Open Compute Project (OCP), a group it spearheaded about 18 months ago in an effort to crowdsource more efficient data center hardware designs. Back then, the project had just one official member—Facebook. But on Wednesday, nearly 2,000 people gathered in a Santa Clara, Calif. convention center to participate in the fourth OCP Summit. The project now has over 50 members, including heavyweights like Intel, EMC (EMC), ARM Holdings, AMD (AMD) and SanDisk (SNDK). "It's really interesting to see all of these arch-rivals in the same room," says Frank Frankovsky, VP of hardware design at Facebook. "It's still somewhat contentious."

MORE: Apple risks repeating the 1980s

Facebook isn't just pushing for new motherboards with interchangeable chips. Through Open Compute members and its own internal research and development, it's trying to drive innovation across the entire data center, from rack designs to new storage technologies.

In a keynote address at Wednesday's Open Compute Summit, Facebook's VP of infrastructure engineering Jay Parikh said there's a big push to use flash storage—more common in small devices like smartphones—in data centers. Indeed, new Open Compute member Fusion-io (FIO) has signed on customers like Pandora (P), Rhapsody and Ning (not to mention Facebook and Apple (AAPL), according to press reports), and has announced it will open-source some of its hardware designs through the project.

Facebook has good reason to drive more efficiency and innovation in data center technology. The company stores about 350 million photos per day. Processing and archiving all those baby pics—and presumably sifting through them with Facebook's new search function—is no easy task with current data center technology. "Going to Mark [Zuckerberg] and saying I can't do anything about the data center for the next two years doesn't work," Parikh told Fortune. "We think big and move fast."

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About This Author
Michal Lev-Ram
Michal Lev-Ram
Writer, Fortune

Based in Silicon Valley, Michal Lev-Ram covers enterprise and mobile technologies for FORTUNE. Prior to joining FORTUNE, she wrote for CNNMoney, Fast Company, Popular Science and other business and technology publications. She was also a staff writer at Business 2.0 and holds a B.A. in journalism from San Francisco State University.

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