I was asked some interesting questions recently by CEO & CIO, a Chinese business magazine. The questions ranged from how Chinese Internet giants like Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent differ from other customers and what leading technologies big Internet companies have created to questions about emerging technologies such as software-defined storage (SDS) and software-defined datacenters (SDDC) and changes in the ecosystem of datacenter hardware, software and service providers. These were great questions. Sometimes you need the press or someone outside the industry to ask a question that makes you step back and think about what’s going on.

I thought you might interested, so this blog, the first of a 3-part series covering the interview, shares details of the first two questions.

CEO & CIO: In recent years, Internet companies have built ultra large-scale datacenters. Compared with traditional enterprises, they also take the lead in developing datacenter technology. From an industry perspective, what are the three leading technologies of ultra large-scale Internet data centers in your opinion? Please describe them.

There are so many innovations and important contributions to the industry from these hyperscale datacenters in hardware, software and mechanical engineering. To choose three is difficult. While I would prefer to choose hardware innovations as their big ones, I would suggest the following as they have changed our world and our industry and are changing our hardware and businesses:

Autonomous behavior and orchestration
An architect at Microsoft once told me, “If we had to hire admins for our datacenter in a normal enterprise way, we would hire all the IT admins in the world, and still not have enough.” There are now around 1 million servers in Microsoft datacenters. Hyperscale datacenters have had to develop autonomous, self-managing, sometimes self-deploying datacenter infrastructure simply to expand. They are pioneering datacenter technology for scale – innovating, learning by trial and error, and evolving their practices to drive more work/$. Their practices are specialized but beginning to be emulated by the broader IT industry. OpenStack is the best example of how that specialized knowledge and capability is being packaged and deployed broadly in the industry. At LSI, we’re working with both hyperscale and orchestration solutions to make better autonomous infrastructure.

High availability at datacenter level vs. machine level
As systems get bigger they have more components, more modes of failure and they get more complex and expensive to maintain reliability. As storage is used more, and more aggressively, drives tend to fail. They are simply being used more. And yet there is continued pressure to reduce costs and complexity. By the time hyperscale datacenters had evolved to massive scale – 100’s of thousands of servers in multiple datacenters – they had created solutions for absolute reliability, even as individual systems got less expensive, less complex and much less reliable. This is what has enabled the very low cost structures of the cloud, and made it a reliable resource.

These solutions are well timed too, as more enterprise organizations need to maintain on-premises data across multiple datacenters with absolute reliability. The traditional view that a single server requires 99.999% reliability is giving way to a more pragmatic view of maintaining high reliability at the macro level – across the entire datacenter. This approach accepts the failure of individual systems and components even as it maintains data center level reliability. Of course – there are currently operational issues with this approach. LSI has been working with hyperscale datacenters and OEMs to engineer improved operational efficiency and resilience, and minimized impact of individual component failure, while still relying on the datacenter high-availability (HA) layer for reliability.

Big data
It’s such an overused term. It’s difficult to believe the term barely existed a few years ago. The gift of Hadoop® to the industry – an open source attempt to copy Google® MapReduce and Google File System – has truly changed our world unbelievably quickly. Today, Hadoop and the other big data applications enable search, analytics, advertising, peta-scale reliable file systems, genomics research and more – even services like Apple® Siri run on Hadoop. Big data has changed the concept of analytics from statistical sampling to analysis of all data. And it has already enabled breakthroughs and changes in research, where relationships and patterns are looked for empirically, rather than based on theories.

Overall, I think big data has been one of the most transformational technologies this century. Big data has changed the focus from compute to storage as the primary enabler in the datacenter. Our embedded hard disk controllers, SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) host bus adaptors and RAID controllers have been at the heart of this evolution. The next evolutionary step in big data is the broad adoption of graph analysis, which integrates the relationship of data, not just the data itself.

CEO & CIO: Due to cloud computing, mobile connectivity and big data, the traditional IT ecosystem or industrial chain is changing. What are the three most important changes in LSI’s current cooperation with the ecosystem chain? How does LSI see the changes in the various links of the traditional ecosystem chain? What new links are worth attention? Please give some examples.

Cloud computing and the explosion of data driven by mobile devices and media has and continues to change our industry and ecosystem contributors dramatically. It’s true the enterprise market (customers, OEMs, technology, applications and use cases) has been pretty stable for 10-20 years, but as cloud computing has become a significant portion of the server market, it has increasingly affected ecosystem suppliers like LSI.

Timing: It’s no longer enough to follow Intel’s ticktock product roadmap. Development cycles for datacenter solutions used to be 3 to 5 years. But these cycles are becoming shorter. Now, demand for solutions is closer to 6 months – forcing hardware vendors to plan and execute to far tighter development cycles. Hyperscale datacenters also need to be able to expand resources very quickly, as customer demand dictates.  As a result they incorporate new architectures, solutions and specifications out of cycle with the traditional Intel roadmap changes. This has also disrupted the ecosystem.

End customers: Hyperscale datacenters now have purchasing power in the ecosystem, with single purchase orders sometimes amounting to 5% of the server market.  While OEMs still are incredibly important, they are not driving large-scale deployments or innovating and evolving nearly as fast. The result is more hyperscale design-win opportunities for component or sub-system vendors if they offer something unique or a real solution to an important problem. This also may shift profit pools away from OEMs to strong, nimble technology solution innovators. It also has the potential to reduce overall profit pools for the whole ecosystem, which is a potential threat to innovation speed and re-investment.

New players: Traditionally, a few OEMs and ISVs globally have owned most of the datacenter market. However, the supply chain of the hyperscale cloud companies has changed that. Leading datacenters have architected, specified or even built (in Google’s case) their own infrastructure, though many large cloud datacenters have been equipped with hyperscale-specific systems from Dell and HP. But more and more systems built exactly to datacenter specifications are coming from suppliers like Quanta. Newer network suppliers like Arista have increased market share. Some new hyperscale solution vendors have emerged, like Nebula. And software has shifted to open source, sometimes supported for-pay by companies copying the Redhat® Linux model – companies like Cloudera, Mirantis or United Stack. Personally, I am still waiting for the first 3rd-party hardware service emulating a Linux support and service company to appear.

Open initiatives: Yes, we’ve seen Hadoop and its derivatives deployed everywhere now – even in traditional industries like oil and gas, pharmacology, genomics, etc. And we’ve seen the emergence of open-source alternatives to traditional databases being deployed, like Casandra. But now we’re seeing new initiatives like Open Compute and OpenStack. Sure these are helpful to hyperscale datacenters, but they are also enabling smaller companies and universities to deploy hyperscale-like infrastructure and get the same kind of automated control, efficiency and cost structures that hyperscale datacenters enjoy. (Of course they don’t get fully there on any front, but it’s a lot closer). This trend has the potential to hurt OEM and ISV business models and markets and establish new entrants – even as we see Quanta, TYAN, Foxconn, Wistron and others tentatively entering the broader market through these open initiatives.

New architectures and new algorithms: There is a clear movement toward pooled resources (or rack scale architecture, or disaggregated servers). Developing pooled resource solutions has become a partnership between core IP providers like Intel and LSI with the largest hyperscale datacenter architects. Traditionally new architectures were driven by OEMs, but that is not so true anymore. We are seeing new technologies emerge to enable these rack-scale architectures (RSA) – technologies like silicon photonics, pooled storage, software-defined networks (SDN), and we will soon see pooled main memory and new nonvolatile main memories in the rack.

We are also seeing the first tries at new processor architectures about to enter the datacenter: ARM 64 for cool/cold storage and web tier and OpenPower P8 for high power processing – multithreaded, multi-issue, pooled memory processing monsters. This is exciting to watch. There is also an emerging interest in application acceleration: general-purposing computing on graphics processing units (GPGPUs), regular expression processors (regex) live stream analytics, etc. We are also seeing the first generation of graph analysis deployed at massive scale in real time.

Innovation: The pace of innovation appears to be accelerating, although maybe I’m just getting older. But the easy gains are done. On one hand, datacenters need exponentially more compute and storage, and they need to operate 10x to 1000x more quickly. On the other, memory, processor cores, disks and flash technologies are getting no faster. The only way to fill that gap is through innovation. So it’s no surprise there are lots of interesting things happening at OEMs and ISVs, chip and solution companies, as well as open source community and startups. This is what makes it such an interesting time and industry.

Consumption shifts: We are seeing a decline in laptop and personal computer shipments, a drop that naturally is reducing storage demand in those markets. Laptops are also seeing a shift to SSD from HDD. This has been good for LSI, as our footprint in laptop HDDs had been small, but our presence in laptop SSDs is very strong. Smart phones and tablets are driving more cloud content, traffic and reliance on cloud storage. We have seen a dramatic increase in large HDDs for cloud storage, a trend that seems to be picking up speed, and we believe the cloud HDD market will be very healthy and will see the emergence of new, cloud-specific HDDs that are radically different and specifically designed for cool and cold storage.

There is also an explosion of SSD and PCIe flash cards in cloud computing for databases, caches, low-latency access and virtual machine (VM) enablement. Many applications that we take for granted would not be possible without these extreme low-latency, high-capacity flash products. But very few companies can make a viable storage system from flash at an acceptable cost, opening up an opportunity for many startups to experiment with different solutions.

Summary: So I believe the biggest hyperscale innovations are autonomous behavior and orchestration, HA at the datacenter level vs. machine level, and big data. These are radically changing the whole industry. And what are those changes for our industry and ecosystem? You name it: timing, end customers, new players, open initiatives, new architectures and algorithms, innovation, and consumption patterns. All that’s staying the same are legacy products and solutions.

These were great questions. Sometimes you need the press or someone outside the industry to ask a question that makes you step back and think about what’s going on. Great questions.

Restructuring the datacenter ecosystem (Part 2)

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Open Compute and OpenStack are changing the datacenter world that we know and love. I thought they were having impact. Changing our OEMs and ODM products, changing what we expect from our vendors, changing the interoperability of managing infrastructure from different vendors. Changing our ability to deploy and manage grid and scale-out infrastructure. And changing how quickly and at what high level we can be innovating. I was wrong. It’s happening much more quickly than I thought.

On November 20-21 we hosted LSI AIS 2013. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was lucky enough to moderate a panel about Open Compute and OpenStack – “the perfect storm.” Truthfully? It felt more like sitting with two friends talking about our industry over beer. I hope to pick up that conversation again someday.

The panelists were awesome: Cole Crawford of Open Compute and Chris Kemp of OpenStack. These guys are not only influential. They have been involved from the very start of these two initiatives, and are in many ways key drivers of both movements. These are impressive, passionate guys who really are changing the world. There aren’t too many of us who can claim that. It was an engaging hour that I learned quite a bit from, and I think the audience did too. I wanted to share from my notes what I took away from that panel. I think you’ll be interested.


 Goals and Vision: two open source initiatives
There were a few motivations behind Open Compute, and the goal was to improve these things.

  • There have been no standards or formats for interchange in hardware design.
  • IT infrastructure has roots going back to railway switching standards (19” rack).
  • IT infrastructure has consisted of very closed systems with limited interoperability.
  • Datacenters have been wasting tremendous amounts of energy and resources on cooling and power distribution.

The goal then, for the first time, is to work backwards from workload and create open source hardware and infrastructure that is openly available and designed from the start for large scale-out deployments. The idea is to drive high efficiency in cost, materials use and energy consumption. More work/$.

One surprising thing that came up – LSI is in every current contribution in Open Compute.

OpenStack layers services that describe abstractions of computer networking and storage. LSI products tend to sit at that lowest level of abstraction, where there is now a wave of innovation. OpenStack had similar fragmentation issues to deal with and its goals are something like:

  • Bring software resource components together for pooled compute, storage and network resources.
  • Present them as resources for application deployment.
  • Create a virtual reference implementation, where the details can vary.
  • Allow integrating new infrastructure under that abstraction.
  • Simplify deployment of clusters at scale.
  • Almost like a kernel for the scale-out cluster

There is a certain amount of compatibility with Amazon’s cloud services. Chris’s point was that Amazon is incredibly innovative and a lot of enterprises should use it, but OpenStack enables both service providers and private clouds to compete with Amazon, and it allows unique innovation to evolve on top of it.

OpenStack and Open Compute are not products. They are “standards” or platform architectures, with companies using those standards to innovate on top of them. The idea is for one company to innovate on another’s improvements – everybody building on each other’s work. A huge brain trust. The goal is to create a competitive ecosystem and enable a rapid pace of innovation, and enable large-scale, inexpensive infrastructure that can be managed by a small team of people, and can be managed like a single server to solve massive scale problems.

Here’s their thought. Hardware is a supply chain management game + services.  Open Compute is an opportunity for anyone to supply that infrastructure. And today, OEMs are killer at that. But maybe ODMs can be too. Open Compute allows innovation on top of the basic interoperable platforms. OpenStack enables a framework for innovation on top as well: security, reliability, storage, network, performance. It becomes the enabler for innovation, and it provides an “easy” way for startups to plug into a large, vibrant ecosystem. And for customers – someone said its “exa data without exadollar”…

As a result, the argument is this should be good for OEMs and ISVs, and help create a more innovative ecosystem and should also enable more infrastructure capacity to create new and better services. I’m not convinced that will happen yet, but it’s a laudable goal, and frankly that promise is part of what is appealing to LSI.

Open Compute and OpenStack are peanut butter and jelly
Ok – if you’re outside of the US, that may not mean much to you. But if you’ve lived in the US, you know that means they fit perfectly, and make something much greater together than their humble selves.

Graham Weston, Chairman of the Rackspace Board, was the one who called these two “peanut butter and jelly.”

Cole and Chris both felt the initiatives are co-enabling, and probably co-travelers too. Sure they can and will deploy independently, but OpenStack enables the management of large scale clusters, which really is not easy. Open Compute enables lower cost large-scale manageable clusters to be deployed. Together? Large-scale clusters that can be installed and deployed more affordably, and easily without hiring a cadre of rare experts.

Personally? I still think they are both a bit short of being ready for “prime time” – or broad deployment, but Cole and Chris gave me really valid arguments to show me I’m wrong. I guess we’ll see.

US or global vision?
I asked if these are US-centric or global visions. There were no qualms – these are global visions. This is just the 3rd anniversary of OpenStack, but even so, there are OpenStack organizations in more than 100 countries, 750 active contributors, and large-scale deployments in datacenters that you probably use every day – especially in China and the US. Companies like PayPal and Yahoo, Rackspace, Baidu, Sina Weibo, Alibaba, JD, and government agencies and HPC clusters like CERN, NASA, and China Defense.

Open Compute is even younger – about 2 years old. (I remember – I was invited to the launch). Even so, most of Facebook’s infrastructure runs on Open Compute. Two Wall Street banks have deployed large clusters, with more coming, and Riot Games, which uses Open Compute infrastructure, drives 3% of the global network traffic with League of Legends. (A complete aside – one of my favorite bands to workout with did a lot of that game’s music, and the live music at the League of Legends competition a few months ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mWU4QvC09uM – not for everyone, but I like it.)

Both Cole and Chris emailed me more data after the fact on who is using these initiatives. I have to say – they are right. It really has taken off globally, especially OpenStack in the fast-paced Chinese market this year.

Book: 4th Paradigm – A tribute to computer science researcher Jim Grey
Cole and Chris mentioned a book during the panel discussion. A book I had frankly never heard of. It’s called the 4th Paradigm. It was a series of papers dedicated to researcher Jim Grey, who was a quiet but towering figure that I believe I met once at Microsoft Research. The book was put together by Gordon Bell, someone who I have met, and have profound respect for. And there are mentions of people, places, and things that have been woven through my (long) career. I think I would sum up its thesis in a quote from Jim Grey near the start of the book:

“We have to do better producing tools to support the whole research cycle – from data capture and data curation to data analysis and data visualization.”

This is stunningly similar to the very useful big data framework we have been using recently at LSI: ”capture, hold, analyze”… I guess we should have added visualize, but that doesn’t have too much to do with LSI’s business.

As an aside, I would recommend this book for the background and inspiration in why we as an industry are trying to solve many of these computer science problems, and how transformational the impact might be. I mean really transformational in the world around us, what we know, what we can do, and how quickly we can do it – which is tightly related to our CEO’s keynote and the vision video at AIS.

Demos at AIS: peanut butter and jelly - and bread?
Ok – I’m struggling for analogy. We had an awesome demo at AIS that Chris and Cole pointed out during the panel. It was originally built using Nebula’s TOR appliance, Open Compute hardware, and LSI’s storage magic to make it complete. The three pieces coming together. Tasty. The Open Compute hardware was swapped out last minute (for safety, those boxes were meant for the datacenter – not the showcase in a hotel with tipsy techies) and were  generously supplied by Supermicro.

I don’t think the proto was close to any one of our visions, but even as it stood, it inspired a lot of people, and would make a great product. A short rack of servers, with pooled storage in the rack, OpenStack orchestrating the point and click spawning and tear down of dynamically sized LUNs of different characteristics under the Cinder presentation layer, and deployment of tasks or VMs on them.

We’re working on completing our joint vision. I think the industry will be very impressed when they see it. Chris thinks people will be stunned, and the industry will be changed.

Catalyzing the market The future may be closer than we think
Ultimately, this is all about economics. We’re in the middle of an unprecedented bifurcation in IT use. On one hand we’re running existing apps on new, dense enterprise hardware using VMs to layer many applications on few servers. On the other, we’re investing in applications to run at scale across inexpensive clusters of commodity hardware. This has spawned a split in IT vendor business units, product lines and offerings, and sometimes even IT infrastructure management in the datacenter.

New applications and services are needing more infrastructure, and are getting more expensive to power, cool, purchase, run. And there is pressure to transform the datacenter from a cost center into a profit center. As these innovations start, more companies will need scale infrastructure, arguably Open Compute, and then will need an Openstack framework to deploy it quickly.

Whats this mean? With a combination of big data and mobile device services driving economic value, we may be at the point where these clusters start to become mainstream. As an industry we’re already seeing a slight decline in traditional IT equipment sales and a rapid growth in scale-out infrastructure sales. If that continues, then OpenStack and Open Compute are a natural fit. The deployment rate uptick in life sciences, oil and gas, financials this year – really anywhere there is large-scale Hadoop, big data or analytics – may be the start of that growth curve. But both Chris and Cole felt it would probably take 5 years to truly take off.

Time to Wrap Up
I asked Chris and Cole for audience takeaways. Theirs were pretty simple, though possibly controversial in an industry like ours.

Hardware vendors should think about products and how they interface and what abstractions they present and how they fit into the ecosystem. These new ecosystems should allow them to easily plug in. For example, storage under Cinder can be quickly and easily morphed – that’s what we did with our demo.

We should be designing new software to run on distributed scale-out systems in clouds. Chris went on to say their code name was “Maestro” because it orchestrates like in a symphony, bringing things together in a beautiful way. He said “make instruments for the artists out there.” The brain trust. Look for their brushstrokes.

Innovate in the open, and leverage the open initiatives that are available to accelerate innovation and efficiency.

On your next IT purchase, try an RFP with an Open Compute vendor. Cole said you might be surprised. Worst case, you may get a better deal from your existing vendor.

So, Open Compute and Openstack are changing the datacenter world that we know and love. I thought these were having a quick impact, changing our OEMs and ODM products, changing what we expect from our vendors, changing the interoperability of managing infrastructure from different vendors, changing our ability to deploy and manage grid and scale-out infrastructure, and changing how quickly and at what high level we can be innovating. I was wrong. It’s happening much more quickly than even I thought.


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