Disposable Appliance Computing

[NOTE: This essay was commissioned by a client in February 2007. It’s the first in a series of old-yet-relevant position-papers whose exclusivity has expired, that I’m editing and posting]

The hosted systems industry has turned another critical point. Several years ago we eschewed large mainframe systems in exchange for commodity servers that could divide load and work together to provide services without single-vendor lock-in and without a single piece of “iron” waiting to fail. The computing power of a $2,000,000 mainframe was dwarfed by the implementation of $80,000 in commodity hardware. With virtualization coming-of-age- with Intel and AMD putting hooks into their processors and chipsets to allow virtualization to be fully realized and not just a software-only hack- we’ve seen those same commodity systems hosting dozens of virtual systems reliably and at near-metal efficiency. The cost per virtual system is a number rapidly approaching zero.

New offerings from Sun, IBM and HP/Compaq are emphasizing something that “the server guys” haven’t needed to care much about: infrastructure. Historically, your network engineers and analysts worried about interconnection, route redundancy, and ensuring the bits could flow where they needed, reliably and sufficiently; and your system engineers worried about everything up to the point the bits hit “the network”. Moving forward, that is almost a debilitating dichotomy. Traditionally, in the post-mainframe era, a physical system did one or two things and its exclusion from the network or its under-performance on the network was a minor issue. With a physical system possibly hosting dozens of virtual systems- all with unique networking requirements, cross-talking requirements, and of course: networked storage requirements- your system engineers must be well-versed in network engineering. “The Network Is The Computer” is not just a Sun tag-line, or a lame cliche’. We’re now fully realizing the potency of that statement. Every system offering from the Big Three contains significant “infrastructure” features: Network features.

By pushing more and more network features into server systems- IBM servers with Cisco “swrouters” built-in, for example – the server itself has become more important and less relevant at the same time. Keeping it up and running well will require a new kind of system engineer because “the box” is now more complex: But at the same time, collections of “boxes” should be able to self-heal and adapt to the failures of others. Each system has now become disposable.

A large swath of the architectural literati are already deploying quantities of self-healing farms that take over the work – the very virtual machines – of failed or failing physical systems. Virtualization on its own wasn’t a game-changer. Virtualization with processor support and recognition sparked real potential. Virtualization on top of “infrastructure”-aware (e.g. heavily networked) physical systems has dramatically shifted the value of hybrid “networked systems engineers”, raised the bar for the “server guys” to get up to speed on the real internals of networking, and has provided the unprecedented opportunity to deploy redundantly resilient systems that can in-practice achieve five-to-seven “nines” of reliability.

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