The Open Compute Project has been making great headway the last few years developing spcifications for low-cost efficient commodity hardware for data centers. In January, it got an endorsement from a new market sector - the telecoms industry.

A group of major telecoms providers signed up to the OCP, which set up a subgroup, the Telco Project, to work on data center specifications to suite the sector. The new group aims to tell hardware manufacturers what telcos want, and feed back developments from the OCP for use in the telecoms industry.

It’s an interesting announcement. These are big players, including Verizon, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Singapore’s SK Telecom, and EE - which, if the purchase is approved, is shortly to become the mobile arm of BT.

But wait a minute. Haven’t we been hearing there’s a big trend for telcos to sell off their data centers? Yes we did, but the sites for sale are the retail colocation spaces which the telecoms providers thought would be a useful extra line of business three or four years ago.

Firms like Verizon bought up colocation players like Terremark, but now it seems they aren’t impressed with the business they are doing. Colo spaces owned by telcos aren’t doing anything very different to other colo providers, and that whole business model is facing competition form the cloud. So telcos like AT&T and Verizon are looking at disposing of those businesses.

The data centers that could be adopting OCP hardware are different: they are the facilities which power the telecoms providers’ own businesses: the mobile network hubs, the telephone exchanges or “central offices”. These are due for an overhaul. Over the years, telecos have tended to upgrade cautiously, and adopt proprietary equipment. Their own spaces could generally benefit from the inclusion of more efficient commodity hardware.

AT&T kicked off an open source project last year called CORD (“central office re-architected as a data center”) which wants to rebuild a lot of network functions in software running on commodity hardware. And the OCP Telco Project should be able to provide the exact specifications of hardware required for this.

It’s a good announcement for OCP, and an endorsement from an industry that hadn’t shown much interest in it before, and has sometimes been said to be hostile to its ideas.

Wait a minute. aren’t telcos selling off their data centers?

A year ago, there was a short-lived burst of criticism for OCP work, with some apparently saying OCP-based products were not getting enough testing and validation. Some people said that OCP is great for web-scale players giants running warehouses full of identical kit, which can be swapped out if it fails, but not everyone can work that way.

Among other things, the critics said that telcos could never adopt OCP methods, because their euipment is running services needing high reliability, in remote offices which could experience harsh environment.

Telcos need reliability, and equipment which can pass the industry’s NEBS standards, I was told, hence the proprietary kit, and the strict test requirements. There was a strong implication that telcos could never adopt OCP equipment.

Among other things, this announcement gives the lie to that. Telcos can benefit from open data center hardware, just like the rest of us.