Some years ago, several conference organizers considered organizing discussion practices comparing west coast/east coast data center operations and practices. I believe a few really did. I remember suggesting that the continental divide probably related more to the types of businesses located on each coast, with the east coast identified as the home of investment banks and the west coast internet companies. Still I was skeptical. After all, both types of businesses have offices and data center facilities all over the country and investment banks and internet companies own just a small fraction of the nation’s mission critical facilities.

Still, my experience at this week’s Open Compute Summit suggests that some sort of schism exists. Last year’s Summit was held in New York and most of the attendees wore ties. San Antonio hosted this year’s Summit, which seemed to attract a fair number of Texans but even more Californians. Attire included lots of jeans and even some sandals but very few neckties.

Participant attitudes towards the subject theme seem to reflect attire. No one in Texas seemed to think that the Open Compute Initiative or the Foundation were an elaborate ruse to get volunteers to donate intellectual property to Facebook and the other companies on the board. By contrast, Manhattan attendees seemed preoccupied with issues of copyright, patents, and licensing. In the end, Mike Manos’s blog post on an April 23rd Yahoo! filing might signal which side will ultimately prevail.

Not being a sociologist, I’m not sure what to make of the perceived split. Perhaps the different moods can’t be attributed to audience makeup. Facebook’s Frank Frankovsky presided over a morning session that included a number of significant announcements, including an Open Rack and an Open Server. These announcements may have minimized any skepticism. Certainly, a coastal split is possible. Last week’s audience and exhibitors seemed to include a great number of server manufacturers and software developers. New York’s audience, by contrast, included a greater number of equipment manufacturers, who may be relatively unfamiliar with the “open” concept of software development, which provides the basis for the Open Compute Initiative.

And this split may pervasive. Though the Open Compute Initiative includes data center design in its mission, that working group did not feature prominently in Frankovsky’s remarks, nor were most large manufacturers of UPS, generators, CRACs, PODs, PDUs, or chillers exhibiting, and finally I did not recognize many principals of the better-known consultants and contractors. I do not know why as these people include some of the better citizens of the IT segment, as witnessed by their support of The Green Grid, ASHRAE, 7x24 Exchange, Data Center World, and a host of strictly for-profit vehicles that provide information platforms for data center operators.

It’s not clear whether the skeptical easterners or the laidback westerners will prevail in a discussion over open standards. Still, blogger Mike Manos of AOL and Huffington Post did report a compelling piece of information. In his May 4, 2012 Loosebolts blog, Manos wrote, “Yahoo may have just sent a cold chill across the data center industry at large and begun a stifling of data center innovation.  In a May 3, 2012 article, Forbes did a quick and dirty analysis on the patent wars between Facebook and Yahoo. It’s a quick read but shines an interesting light on the potential impact something like this can have across the industry. The article, found here, highlights that, ‘In a new disclosure, Facebook added in the latest version of the filing that on April 23 Yahoo sent a letter to Facebook indicating that Yahoo believes it holds 16 patents that “may be relevant” to open source technology Yahoo asserts is being used in Facebook’s data centers and servers.’”

Manos rightly wonders about the chilling effect Yahoo!’s filing will have on data center innovation, and he raises the following interesting questions, “Has their (Facebook) effort to be more open in their designs and approaches to data center operations and design led them to a position of risk and exposure legally?  Will this open the floodgates for design firms to become more aggressive around functionality designed into their buildings?  Could companies use their patents to freeze competitors out of colocation facilities in certain markets by threatening colo providers with these types of lawsuits?”

Certainly Yahoo! is not a patent troll, but I can think of far better ways for them to have acted in this instance. Getting on board the Open Compute Initiative by contributing the disputed designs would be one of them. And until they do, perhaps the exclamation point should be removed from the company name. Efforts at improving data center efficiency are in the public interest and more so any efficiency gap in data center operations at the two Internet giants do not provide an existential competitive advantage to either.