Over the years, technology environments have become increasingly complex. Over those years, CIOs have responded by adding people to manage these systems. However, as the business comes to expect more from IT than simply keeping the lights on and as IT budgets have come under further scrutiny, CIOs have had to find new and better ways to manage the IT environment and this need will grow as more business focused demands consume more of IT’s time.
Fortunately for CIOs, Intel has their backs. Now, to be fair, there are other processor companies out there, of course, but Intel has been and remains the market leader.
If you’re enjoying “software defined” anything – and I bet you already are, even if you don’t know it – you have Intel to thank.
To learn more about how Wikibon views software-led or software-defined infrastructure, refer to David Floyer's article entitled Defining Software-led Infrastructure.
Intel? What are you talking about?
Let’s look at a little history. Many years ago, CIOs bought servers based on one to one application needs. However, as servers became more and more powerful, a group of smart people realized that this excess compute capacity could be harnessed through software in order to help companies save money by having to buy fewer servers.
And, with that, VMware and the x86 virtualization market were born.
In this case, VMware kicked off the “software defined” trend by introducing a product that allowed organizations to create software defined servers, although they are rarely called that. Instead, we call them virtual machines. This software definition gave CIOs a whole new set of tools in their arsenals and they took notice in a big way. x86 virtualization is still one of today’s hottest markets and organization now enjoy unprecedented flexibility when it comes to managing their server-based workloads. These workloads simply run on a thin software layer that spans the organization and can move fluidly between servers or even between data centers either through administrator manipulation or through predefined configuration options that allow the hypervisor software layer to make decisions regarding workload migration.
ASICs used to be the rage
For many applications, technology companies have used ASICs – Application Specific Integrated Circuits – to perform specific functions in hardware devices. ASICs have often been the secret sauce, which enabled a company’s differentiating feature to operate and operate well. Because ASICs generally perform a very, very limited set of functions, they can do so with tremendous performance.
The rise of the core
A few years ago, Intel and other processor manufacturers pretty much stopped advancing their processors clock speeds and turned their focus toward packing more cores into the package. By doing so, the companies were providing customers with what amounted to a multiprocessor system inside a single socket. Today’s modern processors have anywhere from two to a whopping eight cores, and when you consider that most motherboards support anywhere from one to for processors, it’s feasible to see anywhere from eight to thirty-two cores packed into a single system.
This makes processing power more than abundant, which helps continue consolidation trends related to virtualization.
Budget-friendly commoditization is on the rise
This massive abundance of computing power has enabled companies to consider buying commodity servers for their virtualization initiatives rather than buying more expensive specialized servers. But, the trend is starting to take an even more hyper turn. There are more and more companies releasing equipment based on pure commodity hardware and using software to differentiate themselves from their competition. I wrote an article about this trend for Wikibon, which you can read here.
The continuing rise of software
But, thanks to incredible processing power, we’re also seeing software beginning to play a larger role in more and more industries. We’ve already seen software defined servers practically take over the application server market, but we’re also seeing major trends that point to software as becoming even more of a key differentiator as time goes on and there are some major benefits:
- No need for ASICs. ASICs served their purpose when raw general processors combined with software couldn’t keep up. ASICs cost a lot of money to create – remember, they’re custom hardware – and they’re not easily repurposed as technology moves on.
- Unlimited flexibility. Software can be rewritten at will, unlike hardware. As needs change and as vendors mature, they can use software to simply add more flexibility to their commodity-based hardware solutions. As time goes on, they can very easily port software upgrades back to older devices since the hardware is pretty standard.
- Many vendors are already starting to focus on software. Two Wikibon pieces support this fact: Dell Switches from Focus on Components to Focus on Software-led Infrastructure and Is the SDN Network of the Future in Your Data Center Today.
In addition, there exists in the market many players that base their wares on commodity hardware and differentiate themselves with software. In the article links above, you can see what Dell is doing and can read Stu Miniman’s take on OpenFlow in the enterprise, but even vendors that you may not immediately consider as “software led” are really using software to make themselves successful.
Take a look at two of these companies: Nutanix and Tegile. Neither hides the fact that they based their hardware on reliable commodity units and then they write a software stack that rides atop that hardware and provides some pretty powerful services that they use to differentiate themselves from their competition. However, there are many, many more players out there doing similar work; these are two that I happen to have had the opportunity to tear open.
As you tear down their boxes, you will find that the hardware truly is off-the-shelf stuff, right down to the four or six core Xeon processors that power it all. It’s this raw processing power that makes this whole scenario work. If the processors weren’t able to keep up with the demands of the intended solution, nothing would work (which would put us back to using custom ASICs), but modern processors have far more capacity than is needed even for powerful storage and network solutions. This enables these companies to provide such features as inline deduplication and compression without needing to resort to specialized hardware to do so.
For the buyer of said solutions, the benefits are obvious: They get state of the art, commodity-based solutions with a growing feature set. While some may not consider some of these newer players to be “software led” or “software defined,” they are certainly, at the very least, “software informed.”
Personally, I think we have companies like Intel to thank for our ability to rely on software rather than specialized hardware as a way to enable product differentiation. With so much processing power sandwiched into a single physical unit, new markets are being created that would not have been possible just a few years ago. This is even upsetting the ships of well-established players. The competition is very good for the industry and very good for consumers.
Action Item: CIOs would do well to consider some of these better-established startup companies, but don’t rely on funding levels alone. While many CIOs are averse to working with startups, consider the backgrounds and past actions of the executive team. In some cases, the team has taken money and run during acquisitions, but in others, the team has taken a more measured approached to ensure that the acquisition did not have a negative impact in customers. Between past good deeds and current offerings that are often extremely impressive, CIOs can make the case that working with a “software informed startup” might just be in the CIOs best interests.