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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Reshaping System Architectures: Open at Every Turn?

Disaggregated, modular, mix and match, open, these are the sound bites of the emerging white box and open software ecosystems. Will they define the architectural thinking used throughout our information-driven world moving forward?

From the Open Compute Project in data center hardware to open source software such as Open Daylight and OpenStack, the principles of ‘don’t lock me in’ and ‘let me be in charge of components I need for my best-in-class solution’ are making a play for being the dominant drivers for solution designs in nearly every network and IT platform category.

Take Cavium’s just-announced XPliant family of terabit-scale Ethernet Data Center switches as a fresh example. Its Open Compute Project design foundation means, with OCP’s Switch Abstraction Interface (SAI) the switches can be used by any open networking software team to build functions that suit their needs – without being held back by the underlying hardware’s processing architecture. And, with its Open Network Install Environment (ONIE), solution designers can decide whichever network OS best suits their needs. 

In another closely related category, look at Ericsson’s Hyperscale Data Center System (HDS 8000) introduced at Mobile World Congress last week. To support an array of cloud-scale workloads, Ericsson determined it makes sense for the processor and memory elements in its HDS server ‘sleds’ (individual units) to be mixable in a manner customers decide are optimal for their needs. Each combination can be made available to the larger ‘pool’ of resources available and allocated as desired by the cloud management system in use. Each module is attached via an optical infrastructure to simplify storage and compute integration, again based on the workload’s needs.

Mix and match, modular, see

Does this ultra-modular perspective mean the era of integrated product and solution deliveries is dead? Not completely. They will be less prominent in the long run but unlikely to go completely away. For example, HP delivers its Helion OpenStack cloud computing platform as a whole system offering for which it is accountable to its customers. It includes HP and open community components. Juniper delivers its OCX 1100 Open Networking Switch as a platform full of choices about the OS a customer chooses to use in its data center for which Juniper is accountable. It includes Juniper and open community components. 

The increased role of open and modular thinking in solution deliveries is just an indication that the range of ingredients available to producers is increasing (these options were not possible 10 years ago) and the opportunity to bring them to customers in creative ways have expanded. In that sense, the line defining for whom a solution integrator works—a ‘whole system’ vendor (Cisco, Ericsson, HP); a professional services firm (Accenture, Tata); or an end customer (DT, Equinix, NTT)—is being drawn more flexibly today (and moving to the future) than was possible a decade ago. Each party can decide the amount of responsibility it thinks it should shoulder in delivering the end result. The range of options has increased.

Like many deeply rooted transitions, there are parts of this one that are sometimes messy and a bit fragile compared with the ‘certainty’ that integrated platform deliveries of the past have offered. However that fragility will likely subside in coming years as integrators of every type get more familiar with the open building blocks with which they are working, and the use cases they’re supporting put their real and natural pressure on where the boundaries of responsibility should lie for the solutions to be practical. The outcome will be a downshift in the unit cost of underlying hardware, an uptick in the amount of choice that solution integrators decide to use in their designs, and a rise in the value of the software in the solutions at every stage of deployments—from network nodes to server units to higher level applications—that support the services we decide we want to use.

That transition will undoubtedly have its jarring and its stellar moments and will take some time to occur. In the meantime as it unfolds, it’s worth paying close attention to the shifts being brought to market in line with that trajectory in offerings such as the Cavium and Ericsson solutions highlighted here.

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