Game Of Clones: The War Over Your Compute Cycles

"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." ―Cersei Lannister

If you are in the IT infrastructure game, it feels like the old alliances have fallen apart, while the forces of virtualization and cloud have breached all the great walls. It’s the tech industry version of a global war, one rooted both in reality and fantasy.

The “Iron Throne” of the computing industry is the compute cycle, the amount of time and resource used across servers, networking and storage for an application to complete a task. For the vendor world, there is a pitched battle for all the software, services, and miscellaneous technologies that go with it.

What's different this time around: All the large entrants’ armies are marching up and down the computing stack (e.g., servers, storage and networking), as startups have initiated guerilla actions aimed at staking out a larger territory. The downfall of client-server computing is the technology industry’s version of the murders of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark and the chaotic war in which many viewers—er, customers—are now immersed.

Just change the great brands HP, IBM, Dell, Cisco, Oracle, EMC/VMware, Intel, and Microsoft for the great houses of Lannister, Stark, Tagaryen, Tyrell, Baratheon, etc., and all you need is a weekly mini-series.

Slay The Masters, Strike The Slaves' Chains

This is a game of clones war, however. The magical weapon category owners now use against the other is their version of the Unsullied, a commodity proxy army of their enemy’s hardware or software. Effectively, that is, an army of clones.

We saw this first in the server industry in the 1990s, where the x86 server market took off, allowing generic boxes based on PC technology to stomp all over RISC minicomputers. Things didn't get really interesting until the early 2000s when the magic of server virtualization—led by a new dragon called VMware—leveled the server playing field and decimated the great houses of Sun, DEC, SGI and many others.

"When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who wronged me!" —Daenerys Targaryen

This is not to say the current computing powerhouses are sulking in their castles.  Most have hot actions as well as furtive plans to either shore up their existing territory or claim the market share of others through acquisitions or headlong jumps into open source movements. These strategies fall into three broad camps:

  1. White box hardware models driven by proprietary software
  2. Proprietary hardware and software that compete on performance
  3. Open software models (e.g., OpenCompute/Facebook, OpenStack, OpenFlow) across a range of hardware models

This is an epic free-for-all where all the major players are involved in one way or another. Each week, a new episode of intrigue and border crossing looms as the giants vie for position.

Revenge Of The Smallfolk

"Surely there must be ways of having me killed that would be less detrimental to the war effort!" —Tyrion Lannister

Unlike businesses in the client-server revolution, IT buyers in this epic—the traditional smallfolk, if you will—have a range of compute-cycle options that extend well beyond the traditional great houses. To whit, they can:

  • Embrace the open model like Facebook and Google and join the bare metal ecosystem—i.e., buy hardware directly from the original manufacturer and tie it together with open-source software such as the Linux network OS offered by Cumulus Networks
  • Buy it all as a single plug-and-play hyperconvergence package from vendors like Nutanix or Scale Computing
  • Rent it from the cloud (Amazon)
  • Rent pieces like storage and file sharing/collaboration from fast-rising upstarts such as Box
  • Skip the infrastructure and just rent the application (Workday)

While little is certain in the new world of computing, one thing is certain. Any forced wedding between customers and vendors is likely to be, well, bloody.

Lead image via screen capture at HBO.com