DCOS: Turning the Data Center into a PC

Arthur Cole
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Nearly all computing devices, even the processor itself, are comprised of discrete elements that must be brought under a common architecture in order to produce productive, valuable outcomes. This is why we build operating systems for the PC, the server, the storage farm and even the network; otherwise, we would just have a collection of blinking boxes.

To date, this has sufficed because the data environment did not extend beyond the data center walls, and the needs of each type of device were unique enough that separate but interconnected operating systems afforded the greatest degree of flexibility and functionality.

Now, however, with the data center itself emerging as one component in a larger, distributed data ecosystem, some are starting to wonder if it should be treated like a giant, multi-user computer, with a single operating system to bind all its functions together.

The idea of a Data Center Operating System (DCOS) is not new. VMware has been talking about it since at least 2008. But a new crop of developers seems ready to put the notion into practice as scale-out architectures put pressure on traditional operating environments.

San Francisco’s Mesosphere is one of the leading proponents of the DCOS. The company is a major contributor to the Apache Mesos platform, which has already made its way into Twitter, eBay and other web-scale organizations, and it seems it is now ready to make a play for the traditional enterprise. Mesosphere provides advanced management and scheduling algorithms to help discrete devices work in tandem, and is now turning its attention to Kubernetes and other container-based virtualization platforms to enable the operating system to act as the foundation for multiple virtual machines, as opposed to housing a discrete OS within each VM, as is customary. The end result is a single OS that can scale to thousands of servers, improving security, utilization and a host of other factors.

Another key proponent of the DCOS concept is IO. As the company’s Patrick Flynn outlined recently, over-powering, over-provisioning and over-spending are simply not sustainable in scale-out environments, so a data center-wide OS is necessary to provide an integrated view of the data environment, plus the means to control it. In order to take advantage of advanced analytics, predictive modeling, machine learning and other tools that the scale-out data center needs to operate, a center-wide operating system is a major plus.

A key stumbling block for the DCOS, however, is the plethora of mixed-vendor solutions that comprise most data environments, according to solutions provider MTM Technologies. So just as computer manufacturers need to build OS-centric hardware, the enterprise needs to deploy commodity hardware. And this paradigm is not limited to just compute infrastructure, but power, cooling and other facility-level systems as well, all of which is falling under the purview of increasingly sophisticated virtual platforms and management systems.

Already, many of these compatibility barriers are coming down, with software-defined networking acting as the key catalyst, according to venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. Speaking before the Open Networking Summit earlier this year, Khosla described SDN as the enabler of the DCOS by virtue of its ability to abstract much of the complexity that currently surrounds the transfer of bits and bytes from one place to another. At the same time, it is allowing many organizations to rethink their data centers from the ground up, providing an unprecedented opportunity to devise the next-generation data environment around a single, cohesive operating system.

So is the data center on the verge of becoming the new PC? Quite probably, given the expansive nature of Big Data and enterprise mobility and the need to build scale-out architectures to handle rising data loads. But the exact nature of this platform and the specific functions it needs to be able to address modern enterprise requirements are still very much up in the air.

It’s a good bet that the coming year will see some major advances in DCOS and a dramatic rethinking of how the data center fits within the overall data environment.

Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.

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