Change is often very hard for the technology market to accept, particularly in the server space where we measure change in decades. But with the current economy stomping on virtually every IT budget and job to one degree or other, change is being thrust upon us, and that change has a name. Cloud Computing.
The newest variant of this is called "the Private Cloud," and given increasing security concerns this is likely to be where much of the market will be going.
Change Comes in Steps
We tend to look at change in parts. First the idea starts the change, much like client/server computing did in the 80s, but then the other shoe drops and then we realize that everything we thought we knew largely has to change as well. Looking back, the data centers that exist today are vastly different than they were in the mainframe days. Back then the data centers were like big copy rooms with lots of people traffic. Folks even had desks inside them. Now they are more like refrigerators that store tech in towers, and folks only enter when something is broken or needs to be physically changed. But even though there were several attempts to merge networking, telephony and computing during the last several decades, progress has been far less than expected. The Cloud will change that.
VMware: The Private Cloud
This is more along the lines of a pushback by the market which viewed the concept of computing power easily moving between hosting companies and private entities as a bridge too far given current security concerns and reporting requirements. This caused major players, EMC and VMware, to start talking about the concept of the "Private Cloud" which is a Cloud Computing model where all of the resources live under the control of the company using them. It can still be applied to hosting, but the hosting company wouldn't outsource the work to anyone who wasn't tightly controlled. The end result, while not as aggressive in terms of either cost savings or risk, appears more palatable and more in-line with something you could do without putting your job at risk. Something the new US CIO is likely pondering at the moment.
Cisco and Dealing with Networking Bottleneck
With the Private Cloud it is networking that appears to be the new bottleneck, because to make this work, you have to be able to transfer large workloads between equipment that may be geographically dispersed in real time without any lag in service during the transfer. This puts huge demands on the network and increasingly making it important that the servers and process are network-aware, so that things happen optimally. This suggests that network and server techs may, over time, become one in the same, and under Cisco's model it would be the networking skills that would be the most valued, suggesting a possible collapse of departments currently split into a single role. While typically this would happen slowly, under the current economic conditions there is an opportunity for it to happen very quickly and drive significant changes into the data center. Given the kind of traffic management we are talking about, it seems likely that Cisco will also drive telephony and server consolidation very hard with strong financial benefits coming from making all changes at once rather piecemeal. Core to Cisco's new offering is a consolidation of high-speed networks, which would lend itself to some interesting VoIP bundles where Cisco could walk in with just the network and walk out owning much of the enterprise. It is partnering with EMC and VMware to make this happen, and the result could be truly revolutionary.
Microsoft Exploring the Next Step
However, Cisco's move probably isn't as far as this concept will take us. A couple weeks ago Microsoft woke us up with another concept. The idea of going back to the drawing board with data centers and building them much as you would a PC. In other words, rather than a room that houses computers, make the room a massive multi-processing computer and treat it like you would the biggest server case in the history of the world. If you remember back to "2001: A Space Odyssey" that was kind of what Hal was. He wasn't a cluster of servers; he was one big honking computer that took up the entire space he occupied. Science fiction authors have been thinking about this for years (recall, though that didn't end well), but it appears Microsoft took them seriously and now may be exploring where we will be in about 10 years. The fact Redmond imagined its solution with Atom processors and that many of us are getting calls from ARM (the folks behind the processors in smartphones) on servers can't be a coincidence. Bigger things are coming.
Wrapping Up: Change at Warp Speed
I don't think we yet fully understand the level of change that this Cloud Computing thing represents. We have diverse companies that currently aren't in the server space, like Cisco, looking at making a major disruptive entry, and technology vendors, like those building chips for cell phones, licking their chops because there is a huge opportunity for them as well. Microsoft is stirring the pot, and I didn't even loop in Google and Android this round, and they are certainly coming as well. I think, in a few short years, the data center as we know it is dead and what will rise out of the ashes will have a lot to do with the blend of economic issues and technology innovation that we are seeing this year.
It's going to be an amazing future; all we have to do is get there.