Yesterday I read an interesting blog commenting on why Oracle seems so interested in Sun’s hardware.
I quote from a comment by Brian Aker, former head of architecture for MySQL on the O’Reily Radar blog site. He comments on his view on why Oracle bought Sun,
Brian Aker: I have my opinions, and they’re based on what I see happening in the market. IBM has been moving their P Series systems into datacenter after datacenter, replacing Sun-based hardware. I believe that Oracle saw this and asked themselves “What is the next thing that IBM is going to do?” That’s easy. IBM is going to start pushing DB2 and the rest of their software stack into those environments. Now whether or not they’ll be successful, I don’t know. I suspect once Oracle reflected on their own need for hardware to scale up on, they saw a need to dive into the hardware business. I’m betting that they looked at Apple’s margins on hardware, and saw potential in doing the same with Sun’s hardware business. I’m sure everything else Sun owned looked nice and scrumptious, but Oracle bought Sun for the hardware.
I think that Brian has a good point. In fact, in a post I wrote a few months ago, I commented on the fact that hardware is back. It is somewhat ironic. For a long time, the assumption has been that a software platform is the right leverage point to control markets. Clearly, the tide is shifting. IBM, for example, has taken full advantage of customer concerns about the future of the Sun platform. But IBM is not stopping there. I predict a hardware sneak attack that encompasses IBM’s platform software strength (i.e., middleware, automation, analytics, and service management) combined with its hardware platforms.
IBM will use its strength in systems and middleware software to expand its footprint into Oracle’s backyard surrounding its software with an integrated platform designed to work as a system of systems. It is clear that over the past five or six years IBM’s focus has been on software and services. Software has long provided good profitability for IBM. Services has made enormous strides over the past decade as IBM has learned to codify knowledge and best practices into what I have called Service as Software. The other most important movement has been IBM’s focused effort over the past decade to revamp the underlying structure of its software into modular services that are used across its software portfolio. Combine this approach with industry focused business frameworks and you have a pretty good idea of where IBM is headed with its software and services portfolios.
The hardware strategy has begun to evolve in 2005 when IBM software bought a little hardware XML accelerator hardware appliance company called DataPower. Many market watchers were confused. What would IBM software do with a hardware platform? Over time, IBM expanded the footprint of this platform and began to repurpose it as a means to pre-packaging software components. First there was a SOA-based appliance; then IBM added a virtual machine appliance called the CloudBurst appliance. On the Lotus side of the business, IBM bought another appliance company that evolved into the Lotus Foundations platform. Appliances became a great opportunity to package and preconfigure systems that could be remotely upgraded and managed. This packaging of software with systems demonstrated the potential not only for simplicity for customers but a new way of adding value and revenue.
Now, IBM is taking the idea of packaging hardware with software to new levels. It is starting to leverage the software and networking capability focused on hardware-driven systems. For example, within the systems environment, IBM is leveraging its knowledge of optimizing systems software so that it applications-based workloads can take advantage of capabilities such as threading, caching, and systems level networking.
In its recent announcement, IBM has developed its new hardware platforms based on the five most common workloads: transaction processing, analytics, business applications, records management and archiving, and collaboration. What does this mean to customers? If a customer has a transaction oriented system, the most important capability is to ensure that the environment uses as many threads as possible to optimize speed of throughput. In addition, caching repetitive workloads will also ensure that transactions move through the system as quickly as possible. While this has been doable in the past, the difference is that these capabilities are packaged as an end-to-end system. Thus, implementation could be faster and more precise. The same can be said for analytics workloads. These workloads demand a high level of efficiency to enable customers to look for patterns in the data that help predict outcomes. Analytics workloads require the caching and fast processing of algorithms and data across multiple sources.
The bottom line is that IBM is looking at its hardware as an extension of the type of workloads they are required to support. Rather than considering hardware as as set of separate platforms, IBM is following a systems of systems approach that is consistent with cloud computing. With this type of approach, IBM will continue on the path of viewing a system as a combination of the hardware platform, the systems software, and systems-based networking. These elements of computing are therefore configured based on the type of application and the nature of the current workload.
It is, in fact, workload optimization that is at the forefront of what is changing in hardware in the coming decade. This is true both in the data center and in the cloud. Cloud computing — and the hybrid environments that make up the future of computing are all predicated on predictable, scalable, and elastic workload management. It is the way we will start thinking about computing as a continuum of all of the component parts combined — hardware, software, services, networking, storage, collaboration, and applications. This reflects the dramatic changes that are just at the horizon.
It is easy to assume that with the excitement around cloud computing would put a damper on the hardware market. But I have news for you. I am predicting that over the next few years hardware will be front and center. Why would I make such a wild prediction. Here are my three reasons.
1. Hardware is front and center in almost all aspects of the computer industry. It is no wonder that Oracle wants to become a hardware company. Hardware is tangible. It’s revenue hits the bottom line right away. Hardware can envelop software and keep customers pinned down for many, many years. New generation platforms in the form of hardware appliances are a convenient delivery platform that helps the sales cycle. It is no wonder that Oracle wants a hardware platform. It completes the equation and allows Oracle to position itself as a fully integrated computing company. Likewise, IBM and HP are focused on building up their war chest full of strong hardware platforms. If you believe that customers want to deal with one large brand..or two, then the winners want to control the entire computing ecosystem.
2. The cloud looms. Companies like Amazon.com and Google do not buy hardware from the big iron providers and never will. For economic reasons, these companies go directly to component providers and purchase custom designed chips, board, etc. This approach means that for a very low price, these cloud providers can reduce their power consumption by making sure that the components are optimize for massively scaled clouds. These cloud vendors are focused on undercutting the opportunity and power of the big systems providers. Therefore, cloud providers care a lot about hardware — it is through optimization of the hardware that they can threaten the power equilibrium in the computer market.
3. The clash between cloud and on premise environments. It is clear that the computer marketplace is at a transition point. The cloud vendors are betting that they can get the costs based on optimization of everything so low that they win. The large Systems vendors are betting that their sophisticated systems combining hardware, software, and service will win because of their ability to better protect the integrity of the customer’s business. These vendors will all provide their own version of the public and private cloud to ensure that they maintain power.
So, in my view there will be an incredible focus on hardware over the next two years. This will actually be good for customers because the level of sophistication, cost/performance metrics will be impressive. This hardware renaissance will not last. In the long run, hardware will be commoditized. The end game will be interesting because of the cloud. It will not a zero sum game. No, the data center doesn’t go away. But the difference is that purpose built hardware will be optimized for workloads to support the massively scaled environments that will be the heart of the future of computing. And then, it will be all about the software, the data, and the integration.