The Background – Linux as a Fast Follower and the Need for Hot Patching
No doubt about it, Linux has made impressive strides in the last 15 years, gaining many features previously associated with high-end proprietary Unix as it made the transition from small system plaything to core enterprise processing resource and the engine of the extended web as we know it. Along the way it gained reliable and highly scalable schedulers, a multiplicity of efficient and scalable file systems, advanced RAS features, its own embedded virtualization and efficient thread support.
As Linux grew, so did supporting hardware, particularly the capabilities of the ubiquitous x86 CPU upon which the vast majority of Linux runs today. But the debate has always been about how close Linux could get to "the real OS", the core proprietary Unix variants that for two decades defined the limits of non-mainframe scalability and reliability. But "the times they are a changing", and the new narrative may be "when will Unix catch up to Linux on critical RAS features like hot patching".
Hot patching, the ability to apply updates to the OS kernel while it is running, is a long sought-after but elusive feature of a production OS. Long sought after because both developers and operations teams recognize that bringing down an OS instance that is doing critical high-volume work is at best disruptive and worst a logistical nightmare, and elusive because it is incredibly difficult. There have been several failed attempts, and several implementations that "almost worked" but were so fraught with exceptions that they were not really useful in production.[i]
We have been watching many variants on efficient packaging of servers for highly scalable workloads for years, including blades, modular servers, and dense HPC rack offerings from multiple vendors, most of the highly effective, and all highly proprietary. With the advent of Facebook’s Open Compute Project, the table was set for a wave of standardized rack servers and the prospect of very cost-effective rack-scale deployments of very standardized servers. But the IP for intelligently shared and managed power and cooling at a rack level needed a serious R&D effort that the OCP community, by and large, was unwilling to make. Into this opportunity stepped Intel, which has been quietly working on its internal Rack Scale Architecture (RSA) program for the last couple of years, and whose first product wave was officially outed recently as part of an announcement by Intel and Ericsson.
While not officially announcing Intel’s product nomenclature, Ericsson announced their “HDS 8000” based on Intel’s RSA, and Intel representatives then went on to explain the fundamental of RSA, including a view of the enhancements coming this year.
RSA is a combination of very standardized x86 servers, a specialized rack enclosure with shared Ethernet switching and power/cooling, and layers of firmware to accomplish a set of tasks common to managing a rack of servers, including:
· Asset discovery
· Switch setup and management
· Power and cooling management across the servers with the rack
Yesterday HP announced that it will be entering into a “non-equity joint venture” (think big strategic contract of some kind with a lot of details still in flight) to address the large-scale web services providers. Under the agreement, Foxcon will design and manufacture and HP will be the primary sales channel for new servers targeted at hyper scale web service providers. The new servers will be branded HP but will not be part of the current ProLiant line of enterprise servers, and HP will deliver additional services along with hardware sales.
The motivation is simple underneath all the rhetoric. HP has been hard-pressed to make decent margins selling high-volume low-cost and no-frills servers to web service providers, and has been increasingly pressured by low-cost providers. Add to that the issue of customization, which these high-volume customers can easily get from smaller and more agile Asian ODMs and you have a strategic problem. Having worked at HP for four years I can testify to the fact that HP, a company maniacal about quality but encumbered with an effective but rigid set of processes around bringing new products to market, has difficulty rapidly turning around a custom design, and has a cost structure that makes it difficult to profitably compete for deals with margins that are probably in the mid-teens.
Enter the Hon Hai Precision Industry Co, more commonly known as Foxcon. A longtime HP partner and widely acknowledged as one of the most efficient and agile manufacturing companies in the world, Foxcon brings to the table the complementary strengths to match HP – agile design, tightly integrated with its manufacturing capabilities.
On April 23, IBM rolled out the long-awaited POWER8 CPU, the successor to POWER7+, and given the extensive pre-announcement speculation, the hardware itself was no big surprise (the details are fascinating, but not suitable for this venue), offering an estimated 30 - 50% improvement in application performance over the latest POWER7+, with potential for order of magnitude improvements with selected big data and analytics workloads. While the technology is interesting, we are pretty numb to the “bigger, better, faster” messaging that inevitably accompanies new hardware announcements, and the real impact of this announcement lies in its utility for current AIX users and IBM’s increased focus on Linux and its support of the OpenPOWER initiative.
OK, so we’re numb, but it’s still interesting. POWER8 is an entirely new processor generation implemented in 22 nm CMOS (the same geometry as Intel’s high-end CPUs). The processor features up to 12 cores, each with up to 8 threads, and a focus on not only throughput but high performance per thread and per core for low-thread-count applications. Added to the mix is up to 1 TB of memory per socket, massive PCIe 3 I/O connectivity and Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface (CAPI), IBM’s technology to deliver memory-controller-based access for accelerators and flash memory in POWER systems. CAPI figures prominently in IBM’s positioning of POWER as the ultimate analytics engine, with the announcement profiling the performance of a configuration using 40 TB of CAPI-attached flash for huge in-memory analytics at a fraction of the cost of a non-CAPI configuration.[i]
A Slam-dunk for AIX users and a new play for Linux
It was five years ago, March 2009, when Cisco formally announced “Project California,” its (possibly intentionally) worst-kept secret, as Cisco Unified Computing System. At the time, I was working at Hewlett Packard, and our collective feelings as we realized that Cisco really did intend to challenge us in the server market were a mixed bag. Some of us were amused at their presumption, others were concerned that there might be something there, since we had odd bits and pieces of intelligence about the former Nuova, the Cisco spin-out/spin-in that developed UCS. Most of us were convinced that they would have trouble running a server business at margins we knew would be substantially lower than their margins in their core switch business. Sitting on top of our shiny, still relatively new HP c-Class BladeSystem, which had overtaken IBM’s BladeCenter as the leading blade product, we were collectively unconcerned, as well as puzzled about Cisco’s decision to upset a nice stable arrangement where IBM, HP and Dell sold possibly a Billion dollars’ worth of Cisco gear between them.
Five years later, HP is still number one in blade server units and revenue, but Cisco appears to be now number two in blades, and closing in on number three world-wide in server sales as well. The numbers are impressive:
· 32,000 net new customers in five years, with 14,000 repeat customers
· Claimed $2 Billion+ annual run-rate
· Order growth rate claimed in “mid-30s” range, probably about three times the growth rate of any competing product line.
I've just published a Quick Take report that explains why the Nevada District Court’s recent decision on some of the issues in the four-year-old Oracle versus Rimini Street case has significant implications for sourcing professionals — and, indeed, the entire technology services industry — beyond its impact on the growing third-party support (3SP) market.
Now that WeChat has more than 100 million overseas subscribers, Tencent, China’s leading web content provider, faces a new challenge: improving the experience of its customers outside of China. Steep rises in content consumption — largely driven by the increasing use of mobile devices to access services and information — represent a significant opportunity for content companies like WeChat to go global. To achieve this, Tencent has made positive steps in boosting its investment in data centers and networking outside of China.
To improve its user experience in the rest of Asia, Tencent recently announced that it will colocate one data center in Hong Kong and has chosen Equinix to operate it. This is already the second node that Tencent has built outside of mainland China; the first was implemented in Canada to serve North American users.
As an Internet company that operates its own large data centers in mainland China, Tencent has deep experience in data center construction and management and has leveraged this experience to develop best practices and key criteria for data center provider selection. These include:
Networking and interconnection options. As Tencent intends to rapidly expand its business into more countries, it needs carrier-neutral data center providers to offer the necessary connectivity options. For its Hong Kong implementation, Tencent used Equinix to optimize transit routes to achieve lower latency and better connect users inside and outside of mainland China; the data center provider can access multiple networks and peer with members of the Equinix Internet Exchange.
Today’s announcements at the Open Compute Project (OCP) 2013 Summit could be considered as tangible markers for the OCP crossing the line into real relevance as an important influence on emerging hyper-scale and cloud computing as well as having a potential bleed-through into the world of enterprise data centers and computing. This is obviously a subjective viewpoint – there is no objective standard for relevance, only post-facto recognition that something was important or not. But in this case I’m going to stick my neck out and predict that OCP will have some influence and will be a sticky presence in the industry for many years.
Even if their specs (which look generally quite good) do not get picked up verbatim, they will act as an influence on major vendors who will, much like the auto industry in the 1970s, get the message that there is a market for economical “low-frills” alternatives.
Major OCP Initiatives
To date, OCP has announced a number of useful hardware specifications, including:
HP seems to be on a tear, bouncing from litigation with one of its historically strongest partners to multiple CEOs in the last few years, continued layoffs, and a recent massive write-down of its EDS purchase. And, as we learned last week, the circus has not left town. The latest “oops” is an $8.8 billion write-down for its purchase of Autonomy, under the brief and ill-fated leadership of Léo Apotheker, combined with allegations of serious fraud on the part of Autonomy during the acquisition process.
The eventual outcome of this latest fiasco will be fun to watch, with many interesting sideshows along the way, including:
Whose fault is it? Can they blame it on Léo, or will it spill over onto Meg Whitman, who was on the board and approved it?
Was there really fraud involved?
If so, how did HP miss it? What about all the internal and external people involved in due diligence of this acquisition? I’ve been on the inside of attempted acquisitions at HP, and there were always many more people around with the power to say “no” than there were people who were trying to move the company forward with innovative acquisitions, and the most persistent and compulsive of the group were the various finance groups involved. It’s really hard to see how they could have missed a little $5 billion discrepancy in revenues, but that’s just my opinion — I was usually the one trying to get around the finance guys. :)
Earlier this week, in conjunction with ARM Holdings plc’s announcement of the upcoming Cortex A53 and A57, full 64-bit CPU implementations based on the ARM V8 specification, AMD also announced that it would be designing and selling SOC (System On a Chip) products based on this technology in 2014, roughly coinciding with availability of 64-bit parts from ARM and other partners.
This is a major event in the ARM ecosystem. AMD, while much smaller than Intel, is still a multi-billion-dollar enterprise, and for the second largest vendor of x86 chips to also throw its hat into the ARM ecosystem and potentially compete with its own mainstream server and desktop CPU business is an aggressive move on the part of AMD management that carries some risk and much potential advantage.
Reduced to its essentials, what AMD announced (and in some cases hinted at):
Intention to produce A53/A57 SOC modules for multiple server segments. There was no formal statement of intentions regarding tablet/mobile devices, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that AMD wants a piece of this market, and ARM is a way to participate.
The announcement is wider that just the SOC silicon. AMD also hinted at making a range of IP, including its fabric architecture from the SeaMicro architecture, available in the form of “reusable IP blocks.” My interpretation is that it intends to make the fabric, reference architectures, and various SOCs available to its hardware system partners.