How Our Open Source OS Pivot Accelerated Product Innovation

17 May 2024

When we first came up with our “big idea” back in 2017, my partner Mike Wagner and I didn’t know how much impact it would have. The idea was simple enough: We wanted to develop a virtual appliance that could discover, provision, and maintain servers from any manufacturer. By 2020, that vision became a reality with the launch of our flagship platform, which we built entirely on open-source technologies. That strategy was working well from the start. Well enough, I should say.

We knew we could improve our metal-as-a-service software appliance if we could just find a way to boost performance, ensure higher system uptime, and streamline the architecture. The only way to do that, we realized, was to replace the Linux operating system and KVM virtual machine solution with something that would give us those benefits. What we did know was that we wanted to continue with our strategy of utilizing open source—and ideally tied to a very permissive license and open governance model. That would give us more flexibility as our roadmap unfolded and enable extensive use and modification without stringent (or murky) conditions.

Taking the plunge

After our due diligence, we transitioned to the Unix-like open source FreeBSD operating system, along with the BSD hypervisor Bhyve. We liked that the FreeBSD project had off-the-shelf capabilities within a single distribution, and had plenty of mission-critical enterprise use cases (Netflix and Sony being two of the most well-known). Together with existing technologies like the Redfish standard, the new and improved platform we’d built (called Mojo) was ready to really take off.

With FreeBSD and bhyve fully in place, we were now able to add edge data center provisioning to the platform, which helps discover, configure, and provision bare metal servers and storage within a data center and at the edge. It works really well with another new technology (PhotoISP, which I’ll discuss in a moment) to manage geographically distributed bare metal assets.

These open-source changes to our infrastructure proved to be the silver bullet we were looking for. More organizations began to contact us, and we started landing some really interesting use cases, including Major League Baseball. Before the 2021 season, MLB was looking for a way to move from VMware to a containerized environment across 30 data centers. In a nutshell, they needed a way to quickly process 15 different input sources to track all the player and team statistics generated during a game. By more quickly provisioning servers, that data could be quickly gathered at the edge and uploaded into Google Cloud.

The Mojo platform, backed by an evolved open-source strategy, helped streamline MLB’s deployment pipelines (cutting deployment time in half). It also simplified the provisioning and management of MLB’s bare metal edge sites and made it really easy to provision Anthos, BIOS, firmware, OS patches, and upgrades. They also saw big performance gains for their GPU-enabled apps and more optimized CI/CD pipelines.

Expanding a vision backed by open source

Albert Einstein once said that necessity is the mother of all invention. My family lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and when COVID hit, word spread quickly that several teachers and students were unable to stream their classes because they had insufficient rural broadband access. Mike and I brainstormed about how we could help, and we immediately recognized how Mojo, paired with a reliable and secure CPE, could solve the problem.

That led development of the Photon ISP platform, which delivers routing, firewall, and QoS through the open-source FreeBSD operating system. It also monitors IDS/IPS for wireless and fixed fiber networks and ensures uninterrupted 4G/5G and Starlink failover as a hedge to wireless ISP services.

Today, the Photon ISP platform has 50 rural customers, and that number continues to grow. And its uptime is unparalleled; we have FreeBSD CPEs that have been running for more than a year without issue. Speeds have been very consistent, streaming content has been reliable, and there has been almost zero latency.

We’re still pushing the limits of what we can do with our optimized open-source infrastructure. Next, we plan to finish moving the remainder of the stack to FreeBSD once a viable OCI-compliant stack becomes available. In the meantime, we still use Linux within Bhyve virtual machines for a few of our services.

Simply put, the strategic shift to open-source FreeBSD and Bhyve for our platforms has catalyzed innovation and customer growth. The success with MLB—cutting deployment times and improving performance—is a great example of how the right open-source pieces can have an outsized impact while being far more flexible (not to mention cost-efficient!) than proprietary alternatives.