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The Importance of Bringing Open Source to the Masses

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HPC Specialist Jean-Marie Verdun

HPC Specialist Jean-Marie Verdun

The global Open Source market is expected to triple in size and grow into a $30 billion industry by 2022. Open Source has redefined the way businesses operate, and some of the most influential companies of our time, such as Microsoft and Google are the biggest supporters of the movement.

So why is Open Source so special?

When you make a project Open Source, the source code of a software, which is typically guarded in secrecy by the company that owns the rights, is open and free for the world to download, modify, and use. But, the focus here is not on free software.

The beauty of Open Source is that it brings together developers and innovators who are no longer competing with each other but instead, working as a community to benefit each other.

Jean-Marie Verdun, one of the world’s leading open platform and HPC specialists, who is currently a senior strategist for HPE, has been an avid proponent of open computing for over a decade.

With the expansion in digital devices and the need for speed, Jean-Marie believes that Open Source will transform the hardware industry at an unimaginable scale. He remarks, “Open Source helps share knowledge at a faster pace and 2020 will be focused on enhancing the required tool to make it happen.”

Jean-Marie’s relationship with Open Source goes back to the year 2003. At that time, Jean-Marie worked as a supercomputing expert with the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in France. His work with DEC Alpha supercomputers led to the creation of Tera1, which was publicly announced as the fourth biggest supercomputer in the world. Jean-Marie was responsible for delivering the system to The French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). During this time, he began studying the HPC cluster based on x86 processors.

HPC Specialist Jean-Marie Verdun

HPC Specialist Jean-Marie Verdun

Jean-Marie says, “I shifted to a product marketing position to be able to influence corporate strategy to a Linux based approach and stronger open source position instead of proprietary Unix and HP- PA / Itanium approach.”

Soon, Jean-Marie’s work led to HPC’s first Cloud-based computing resource based on AMD Opteron for CEA. In 2005, HP acquired Compaq and wanted to upgrade Tera1 based on the Intel Itanium chip. HP bid with a proprietary architecture to CEA, but Jean-Marie was convinced it wasn’t the way to move forward. He believed in the power of open solutions and was driven by a crazy dream to design computers differently.

Jean-Marie decided to take the leap and founded Splitted-Desktop Systems (SDS) with his wife in France. SDS had two goals: to democratize the tech world and build energy-efficient supercomputers. This led Jean-Marie to design RuggedPOD, a first-of-its-kind liquid-cooled server chassis that allows data centers to achieve a Power Usage Efficiency (PUE) of 1 without any active cooling systems. Jean-Marie has been awarded three patents for this specific topic, and the solution is a game-changer as it enables data centers to be dramatically eco-efficient.

In 2012, Jean-Marie, with the support of his shareholders, decided to shift the business entirely to an Open Hardware approach. This decision transformed the company from a proprietary design house and manufacturer to an open company, driving the future of IT.

By sharing his knowledge, Jean-Marie helped bring landmark shifts in computer science. His efforts were directed at leveling the playing field in the supercomputing space so that more people have access to it. For example, as part of the Open Compute Project, Jean-Marie helped co-organize the first Open Compute Project Summit in Europe. The Open-Compute Project is a non-profit community of computing professionals created by Facebook that aims to redesign computer hardware focused on data centers. Jean-Marie was one of the first to embrace this movement, with his work inspiring corporate leaders like Google and Facebook to share their designs for scalable computing as well.

Jean-Marie’s analysis of the Open Hardware market and business opportunity led him to create two major innovations. At that time, there were no scalable industrial processes or software tools available to refurbish decommissioned systems. Each server that was thrown away was approximately 25 kilograms of equipment and added to the mounting e-waste crisis. Jean-Marie engineered a scalable process, based on the circular economy model approach, and it was a big hit from both a technical and business perspective.

“I think the most important thing around Open Source Hardware is to break the planned obsolescence issue that all industrial companies have to face,” he explains. “It is about transforming the industry from mass manufacturing to be more ethical and service oriented where businesses can be profitable and sustainable.”

His second major innovation was the creation of the LinuxBoot project. LinuxBoot aims to create an open source, trustable, and efficient firmware stack for servers used in data centers. LinuxBoot brings back the control of this critical software to the end-user by adapting the Linux kernel to low-level hardware initialization. The project has been a massive success and has been adopted by Facebook and Google at scale. Today, LinuxBoot has become a mandatory option for OCP certified servers.

Looking back on his journey, Jean-Marie comments, “After running my company, I can tell you that you can’t do anything alone. Scaling projects and helping people to adapt to Open Source Hardware is something I love to do. Many corporations will have to adapt and embrace Open Source Hardware. The pace at which it will be required depends on the industry, but clearly the IT industry has no choice. Only the one who adapts will survive.”

HPC Specialist Jean-Marie Verdun

HPC Specialist Jean-Marie Verdun

Currently, Jean-Marie is involved with open source projects such as FreeCAD and CADCloud that help people share ideas around complex designs. FreeCAD is used globally and helps mechanical engineers to design parts.

Jean-Marie says, “Most of the algorithm behind FreeCAD is inspired from the research labs I used to work at during the early stage of my career.”

CADCloud, on the other hand, is a new project for the Open Compute Project (OCP), and it’s an extension of FreeCAD. It aims to create collaboration tools between engineers working remotely on mechanical assemblies. Jean-Marie spent the last year developing CADCloud as a private side project-- one that he says could have evolved in two ways.

“Being the sole developer at this time, it was not really designed to scale and face the challenges that a community of multiple makers faced. The only way to make it better and scalable were either to make it public and release the IP, or build a private company with stronger investments than a single engineer, like myself, could do in his spare time,” explains Jean-Marie.

“I decided to release the source code under an MIT license and give the IP to the Open Compute Project foundation to accelerate the developments and make sure that this asset stays free to use.”

Though Jean-Marie is still the lead developer, CADCloud is now hosted under the Open Compute Project foundation; and while it is essentially a mechanical sharing platform, what makes CADCloud so interesting is the fact that it has the potential to make a positive impact on those affected by Covid-19.

After attending a workshop organized by makers on how to provide efficient Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at low cost to face the Covid-19 crisis, OCP founder Bill Carter contacted Jean-Marie to discuss CADCloud’s potential as a useful platform in developing PPE. As an open source project where hundreds of thousands of people can contribute their expertise, there’s no doubt that CADCloud could be the platform that melds together the necessary counterparts in order to make more efficient and affordable PPE, and so much more.

“Such tools are key to allowing people around the world to design and develop mechanical parts. CADCloud is a unique technical solution... It will be used by OCP members like Facebook, Microsoft, and other giants to share technical data about their design and accelerate innovation into the computing industry,” says Jean-Marie. “It is an ongoing effort, and I roughly gave away the IP to an American-based non-profit organization to ensure the tool’s longevity and maintenance as it was initially only a hobby project.”

While Jean-Marie could have sold CADCloud to a private company or garnered investments and started a new company based on the platform, he chose to give the project away for free in an effort to promote the positive evolution of the computer industry.

When asked to give a sneak peek into the future of Open Source, Jean-Marie says, “I want to witness the emergence of a whole new computer hardware industry based on open technologies. This is doable and if I can just bring in a small piece into that effort, I’ll be happy.”