Case Study: Coolan Provides Open Compute Project Community with Vital Performance Data

Startup firm brings visibility to Open Compute Project hardware performance by collecting and analyzing usage data to help companies get the most from their servers.

Coolan is a data-driven, community-based software platform that provides insight into how data center environments are performing. Founded in 2013, Coolan has two goals: uncovering issues that arise during the lifecycle of a server, and bringing transparency to the enterprise hardware space.

Customers can deploy Coolan on Open Compute Project-designed gear (or any Linux-based server). Like the Open Compute Project (OCP), it draws on the power of a community to help ease the transition to more flexible, efficient, scalable IT. By using real-time information aggregated from a number of data center environments, Coolan’s platform provides customers with actionable data: peer benchmarking reports and recommendations for the configuration, debugging, and optimization of their servers.

Measuring data center performance

Before Amir Michael founded Coolan, he worked as part of the Facebook data center team that kicked off the Open Compute Project in 2011 by redesigning the company’s servers and open sourcing the design. “The Open Compute Project started a conversation,” Michael says, “about the lack of transparency within the data center industry, and how data center operators could best work together to reduce operational complexity and increase efficiency.”

As part of that conversation, Michael spoke to CIOs, engineers and operations teams at many organizations interested in deploying OCP servers. He noticed that few of them effectively collected metrics on the performance of their infrastructure. And even if they did collect it, they often weren’t analyzing it as much as they could have been. “There’s a lot of untapped value there,” he says. “This data can tell you if you’re operating at full potential, and if not, how to get there.”

Large organizations are better equipped to optimize their hardware based on the sheer scale of their deployments—their data sets are generally bigger, and they have the resources to analyze and leverage them. But, smaller firms often don’t have the resources or a big enough data repository to do it. “The information exists,” Michael says, “but it’s not readily accessible.”

A community-based data set

Coolan makes the data accessible, by combining input from a community of participants into one large, shared set. “We bring that large data set to anyone with a server,” says Michael.

Coolan’s customers use servers from many different vendors—including OCP solution providers. They send their data to Coolan, whose automated software analyzes it based on thousands of operational variables, from how many hours a component has been in operation to how many bit errors have been generated by memory.

Coolan then takes it one step further, aggregating all the data it receives, making it anonymous and sharing its findings on server configuration, operating temperature and failure rates with the wider community. Companies that participate receive insight into industry benchmarks, the most stable server configurations, and more. “We extract a lot of information about server stability and efficiency to establish trends and even predict what might happen,” Michael says. “While there may be some initial hesitation about sharing data, we have found that people decide to participate because they realize they will get value in return. They can analyze their own infrastructure and compare to the community to gain a clearer picture of future equipment failure.”

Coolan is in the early stages of development, but has already begun to help make the hardware purchasing process more transparent for enterprises. Previously, data about server performance were dependent on a vendor’s own marketing claims; Coolan serves as a neutral, vendor-agnostic source of information that can help reduce downtime and ultimately, lower the cost of infrastructure. “We are working with companies that are giving us data and helping guide our product development,” Michael says. This ranges from firms with several hundred servers to one with more than 500,000.

Better insight, better decisions

Coolan’s platform is bringing more transparency to the server industry, and showing potential to help companies determine if a move to OC hardware is right for them. “Some in the industry view OCP with skepticism,” says Michael. “They want it because it’s more economical and more flexible, but they’re afraid because there’s no safety net.” By collecting and disseminating data on failure rates, Coolan is adding transparency to the process of purchasing hardware. Customers can see how servers from different vendors—whether they adhere to OC designs or otherwise—stack up in terms of performance. Michael says, “We are giving companies the means to make an informed decision on whether they want to stick with traditional vendors or start migrating to OCP.”

Michael says OCP has helped to create a new paradigm for how the industry looks at hardware. “The momentum behind OCP clearly indicates that people want more efficient hardware. We are changing what used to be a very opaque, proprietary, don’t-look-behind-the-curtain business where vendors controlled every bit of information about operations. Now, the data center industry is opening up and increasingly driven by an engaged community of hardware developers and consumers. OCP has inspired people to rethink how they approach servers and data centers,” he says. “Our principles mirror those of the Open Compute Project: transparency, building a community and putting control in the customer’s hands.”