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Facebook releases design for souped-up artificial intelligence server, 'Big Sur'

James Niccolai | Dec. 11, 2015
The server uses powerful GPUs and will be released through the Open Compute Project.

Facebook Big Sur
Big Sur, Facebook's server purpose built for running machine learning programs. Credit: Facebook

Facebook is releasing the hardware design for a server it uses to train artificial intelligence software, allowing other companies exploring AI to build similar systems.

Code-named Big Sur, Facebook uses the server to run its machine learning programs, a type of AI software that "learns" and gets better at tasks over time. It's contributing Big Sur to the Open Compute Project, which it set up to let companies share designs for new hardware.

One common use for machine learning is image recognition, where a software program studies a photo or video to identify the objects in the frame. But it's being applied to all kinds of large data sets, to spot things like email spam and credit card fraud.

Facebook, Google and Microsoft are all pushing hard at AI, which helps them build smarter online services. Facebook has released some open-source AI software in the past, but this is the first time it's released AI hardware.

Big Sur relies heavily on GPUs, which are often more efficient than CPUs for machine learning tasks. The server can have as many as eight high-performance GPUs that each consume up to 300 watts, and can be configured in a variety of ways via PCIe.

Facebook said the GPU-based system is twice as fast as its previous generation of hardware. "And distributing training across eight GPUs allows us to scale the size and speed of our networks by another factor of two," it said in a blog post Thursday.

One notable thing about Big Sur is that it doesn't require special cooling or other "unique infrastructure," Facebook said. High performance computers generate a lot of heat, and keeping them cool can be costly. Some are even immersed in exotic liquids to stop them overheating.

Facebook Big Sur
An image of Big Sur shows a large airflow unit inside the server. Credit: Facebook

Big Sur doesn't need any of that, according to Facebook. It hasn't released the hardware specs yet, but images show a large airflow unit inside the server that presumably contains fans that blow cool air across the components. Facebook says it can use the servers in its air-cooled data centers, which avoid industrial cooling systems to keep costs down.

Like a lot of other Open Compute hardware, it's designed to be as simple as possible. OCP members are fond of talking about the "gratuitous differentiation" that server vendors put in their products, which can drive up costs and make it harder to manage equipment from different vendors.


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