Time to Fix the Hardware Foundation, Too

Michael Vizard

Earlier this month we discussed the theoretical desire for tearing down many of the software applications that not only hinder our productivity, but also consume an inordinate amount of money to maintain.

This week it's time to look at the hardware foundation that many of our condemnable software houses sit on. As to be expected, these hardware foundations are deeply flawed. The good news is that we may be on the cusp of doing something to fix them once and for all.

For more than 30 years the history of hardware systems has been defined by hiding the I/O bottleneck. Sometimes that I/O bottleneck is in the storage system, sometimes in the network, and most recently it's in our memory systems thanks to the rise of virtualization. These bottlenecks exist, arguably, because advances in hardware technology are never made in lock step with each other. For example, an advance in memory technology will exacerbate I/O bottlenecks in our storage systems, which will exist for a period of years until storage technology can catch up.

But it may be that we have actually reached a seminal moment where for the first time in 30 years we have an opportunity to watch the development of a new generation of truly balanced systems. At least that's what Schooner Information Technology claims to be leading the ways towards with a set of compute-engine appliances.

The Schooner appliances make use of Intel Xeon multi-core processors, flash memory, the latest DRAM memory modules, I/O storage interconnects and 10GB Ethernet to develop a system that is managed by the Linux-based Schooner Operating Environment (SOE). What makes SOE unique is that it not only manages the underlying hardware, it also embeds lower levels of the software stack directly into the system. For example, the first two Schooner appliances are designed to optimize the performance of the open-source MySQL database and the Memcached caching system.

The combined effect is to create an appliance approach to enterprise computing that consumes one-tenth the power and one-tenth the space of rival architectures, along with a 60 percent reduction in the total cost of operations, according to Schooner CEO John Busch, who previously has served as research director of computer systems and analysis for Sun Labs unit of Sun Microsystems.

The Schooner approach has already been endorsed by IBM, which positions the Schooner appliance as a next-generation data access appliance for Internet companies. This appliance approach is also key to IBM's own approach for developing a Smart Analytics set of appliances unveiled last June.

Busch says the key to this appliance approach is that it allows applications to take full advantage of multi-core processors without having to rewrite their applications using difficult-to-master parallel application development tools. Instead, what Schooner is advocating amounts reducing a lot of the complexity at the application layer in order to make it easier to scale application performance on the fly.

It's too early to say what impact these appliance-based approaches to enterprise computing will ultimately have. But we live in a time of great change. And it looks like significant change has finally come to hardware architectures that fundamentally have not really evolved much in over 30 years.

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