Since the early days of personal computing, we’ve had expansion cards. The first Apple and Radio Shack TRS-80 micro-computers enabled hackers like me to buy a foundational system from the OEM then over time upgrade it with third party peripherals. For example, my original TRS-80 Model III shipped with 4KB of RAM and a cassette tape drive (long term data storage, don’t ask). Within a year I’d maxed the system out to 48KB of RAM (16KB per paycheck) and a pair of internal single sided, single density 5.25” floppy drives (90KB of storage per side). A year or so later the IBM PC debuted and transformed what was a hobby for most of us into a whole new market, personal computing (PC). For the better part of two decades IBM lead the PC market with an open standards approach, yeah they brought out MicroChannel Architecture (MCA) and PCNetwork, but we won’t hold that against them. Then in 2006 as the push towards denser server computing reached a head IBM introduced the BladeCenter H. A blade-based computing chassis with integrated internal switching. This created an interesting new twist in the market the OEM proprietary mezzanine I/O card format (mezz), unique to IBM BladeCenter H.
At that time I was with another 10Gb Ethernet adapter company managing their IBM OEM relationship. To gain access to the new specification for the IBM BladeCenter H mezz card standard you had to license it from IBM. This required that your company pay IBM a license fee (a serious six-figure sum), or provide them with a very compelling business case for how your mezz card adapter would enable IBM to sell thousands more BladeCenter H systems. In 2006 we went the business case route, and in 2007 delivered a pair of mezz cards and a new 32-port BladeCenter H switch for the High-Performance Computing (HPC) market. All three of these products required a substantial amount of new engineering to create OEM specific products for a captive IBM customer base. Was it worth it, sure the connected revenue was easily well into the eight figures? Of course, IBM couldn’t be alone in having a unique mezz card design so soon HP and Dell debuted their blade products with their own unique mezz card specifications. Now having one, two or even three OEM mezz card formats to comply with isn’t that bad, but over the past decade nearly every OEMs from Dell through SuperMicro, and a bunch of smaller ones have introduced various unique mezz card formats.
Customers define markets, and huge customers can really redefine a market. Facebook is just such a customer. In 2011 Facebook openly shared their data center designs in an effort to reduce the industry’s power consumption. Learning from other tech giants Facebook spun off this effort into a 501c non-profit called the Open Compute Project Foundation (OCP) which quickly attracted rock star talent to its board like Andy Bechtolsheim (SUN & Arista Networks) and Jason Waxman (Intel). Then in April of last year Apple, Cisco, and Juniper joined the effort, and by then OCP had become an unstoppable force. Since then Lenovo and Google have hopped on the OCP wagon. So what does this have to do with mezz cards? Everything, OCP is all about an open system design with a very clear specification for a whole new mezz card architecture. Several of the big OEMs and many of the smaller ones have already adopted the OCP specification. In early 1Q17 servers sporting Intel’s Skylake Purley architecture will hit the racks, and we’ll see the significant majority of them supporting the new OCP mezz card format. I’ve been told by a number of OEMs that the trend is away from proprietary mezz card formats, and towards OCP. Hopefully, this will last for at least the next decade.