Monday, March 12, 2007

Black Box Computing

I remember reading about Sun's Black Box project a few months back and scratching my head and wondering “Why would someone want a tractor trailer load of proprietary hardware with an air conditioner attached?” With the emergence of Amazon's EC2and S3 services, the growing pervasiveness and promise of virtualization, and Sun's further speculation that the world will only need 4 – 5 computers, I think I am beginning to understand why Sun wants to be synonymous with black box computing.

In the future, what is in the box (i.e. the hardware and its OS) will be irrelevant because your applications will not be defined by the systems that they run atop (as they are today). Applications will be defined as software appliances, and they will run atop the black box that offers the best service level/price performance ratio at that particular point in time. The best service level could indeed be influenced by proximity to the point of consumption (latency), security of output (network access characteristics), performance capacity (throughput per unit of time), or price capacity (throughput per $). Applications will be completely portable due to virtualization and software appliance technology. Compare the promise of such a future with an anecdote regarding the burden of our past experience.

Early in my tenure as the leader of Red Hat's enterprise sales effort, I once asked a large enterprise customer how they defined the systems to be deployed to support a given application. The answer that came back in an absolute deadpan was:

“If it is to be deployed in less than 6 months, we look under the developers desk to see what he is running, and we go buy as many of that exact system as meets the projected application requirement.”

I bet there is still quite a lot “developer system cloning” by procurement and IT staff going on today. I also bet that there won't be much of it happening a few years from now because the system that runs the application will be a black box, and developers will define their applications, sans hardware, as software appliances.


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