Open Compute Summit IV: Hardware Hackathon

Last week at the fourth Open Compute Summit in Santa Clara, we held the first-ever OCP hardware hackathon. In just nine hours, a group of about 70 hackers generated seven really interesting hardware designs — all of which could now be turned into physical products that are ready to plug in and power up.

Like in a software hackathon, the goal in a hardware hackathon is to take an idea from concept to prototype in as little time as possible. The big differences in a hardware hack are that the "prototype" is a set of manufacturing files (bill of materials, Gerbers, and solid models) and that projects are often judged not just on their innovation and utility, but also on how easily they could eventually be manufactured. At stake in this hack: The OCP Foundation would help the winning team patent their design or take it to prototype.

We began the process several weeks in advance, soliciting project ideas from the OCP community and zeroing in on six themes: storage, sensors & displays, communication, power, racks & mechanical, and robotics. My company, Upverter, provided design tools for the teams to use, and GrabCAD got involved to fill out the mechanical side of the hack.

And then came the main event! At 1:00 pm on the first day of the Summit the 70 hackers got together in one of the ballrooms. We walked through what tools were available and what type of files could be submitted at the end of the hack. We then started a timer and the hackers began to find and form teams.

The energy that poured into ideation and team formation was pretty awesome to watch. We had whiteboards set up all over the room, with little semicircles around each and hackers debating the problems they were excited about. After about 30 minutes teams were formed, ideas were picked, and the actual hacking began.

Here are the projects the different teams tackled:

19" to Open Rack conversion

The challenge: Build mechanical and power interoperability between legacy compute hardware and the Open Rack standard. The hack was predominantly mechanical and resulted in a three-piece rack design that could be configured to accept either type of hardware. The team was working on the mechanical designs at the end of the hack.

Bluetooth adaptor

The challenge: Get rid of the USB and serial cable mess that’s required to hook a laptop up to the debug port of a server. The hack designed a small circuit that allowed the technician to connect to a server via Bluetooth, instead of via a serial cable. The team had a working prototype and design files in Upverter at the end of the hack.

Debug port aggregation

The challenge: Collect all the debug port information from all the servers in a rack and connect it to the Internet. The hack was designed mechanically and electrically and was mostly complete by the end of the hack.

The "FlexiStrip"

The challenge: Line a smattering of server racks from floor to ceiling with an array of temperature sensors and then use that data to generate a thermal profile of the data center. The team focused on the sensor arrays themselves, but they also did some Arduino prototyping into reading sensors and wireless communication.

The "Happy Rack"

The challenge: Monitor the health and happiness of a server rack and display it prominently and physically on the top of the rack. The hack was done as a prototype cardboard box with an Arduino-driven arrow that moved between an unhappy face and a happy face depending on input. (This hack won our unofficial "Hacker Spirit Award.")

High-density Open Rack JBOD server

The challenge: Take a high-density array of cheap disks and design an enclosure for them that would fit into an OCP Open Rack. The team made it as far as mechanical and thermal models. They were beginning to work on the carrier/backplane circuit boards at the end of the hack.

Mesh-networked sensors

The challenge: Distribute a large number of low-power sensors around a data center and communicate between them efficiently. The hack was built on top of Arduino, ZigBee wireless, and a simple thermal sensor. The team focused on a prototype, finished it early, and spent the rest of the hack on documentation and moving the design into Upverter.

And the winner is…

At the end of the hackathon, all the groups did quick presentations on their hacks. We were all impressed by the quality, applicability, and completeness of all of the projects. To determine the winner, we looked at the five deliverables (schematic, layout, mechanical, prototype, documentation), the hack's applicability to data centers, and the hack's completeness and manufacturability.

The winning design: The debug port aggregation hack. This team produced a design that hit 4 of the 5 deliverables, was super applicable, and was just hours from completion.

Congratulations to all the teams involved for their great work, and see you at the next OCP hardware hack!

Zak Homuth is the co-founder and CEO of Upverter. Upverter builds the pickaxes of hardware engineering. Ideation tools, schematic capture, PCB layout, design hosting, parts library management, and affordable prototyping. All of which are collaborative, accessible, reusable, and in the cloud.