Saturday, June 23, 2007

Microsoft Attempts Software Appliances

Microsoft has been slowly revealing the roles that will be available as Server Core installation options for the upcoming Windows Server 2008. These Server Core installations are effectively Microsoft's attempt to provide a software appliance packaging option for customers in order to address the nightmare of administration and stability issues created by the general purpose OS approach (i.e. “one size fits all”). So how are they doing?

In a recent blog post, Scott Fulton replays some of the messaging that Microsoft product manager Andrew Mason delivered at TechEd 2007. According to Scott's post, Microsoft has achieved the following:

- a reduction in the attack surface of the OS from 5GB to about 1.5GB

- a corresponding reduction in the patching burden of 60%

- command line administration (although without “Powershell” - whatever that is)

- 9 server roles available sometime in 2008 or 2009, including a hypervisor role

Well, I suppose this is progress. However, if the goal is simplicity and a reduction in the burden of administration for security and patching, Microsoft still has a very long road to travel. Let's do a quick comparison with rPath's rBuilder capability:

- attack surface for “group core” is about 50MB (no, that is not a typo)

- by proxy, a reduction in the patching burden of 85% vs. the classic Windows approach (this figure does not consider at all the lesser patch requirement for Linux overall, just a straight ratio)

- command line plus graphical, Internet enabled rPath Appliance Agent administration

- infinite roles available based upon the applications generally available for Linux

As the world adopts server virtualization for X86 en masse, these critical packaging differences are going to become a huge challenge for all of the general purpose OS vendors. When hypervisor virtualization such as that offered by VMware and XenSource replaces the general purpose OS as the mechanism for managing infrastructure and attaching applications to the infrastructure (via virtual appliances), the critical packaging requirements for the OS that hosts applications will be:

- tight dependency management for the smallest possible attack surface

- configuration flexibility to optimize the system software to the application workload

- flexible kernel tooling to optimize performance across the various hypervisor management systems

- user friendly interfaces for creating and maintaining the software appliance definition

Given the technology, business, and cultural hurdles that the incumbent general purpose operating system vendors face in implementing these capabilities, it is unclear to me that they will commit to this new approach in a timely fashion. Although Microsoft acknowledges the need for these “slimmer” server core roles, they only plan to achieve a surface area reduction to 1.5GB, with limited roles, and virtually no user enabled packaging options for further optimization for the variety of applications and hypervisors. If that is all that Microsoft can achieve in the face of this obvious demand in the market for hypervisors with virtual appliances, the relevance of the incumbent players in the OS space may be diminished more quickly than anyone currently imagines.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Amazon and the CIO Nightmare

If you watch the behavior of tech-savvy consumers closely enough, you will garner clues regarding the hot trends that will hit the world of enterprise computing in the next 1 – 3 years. It happened with Microsoft, as individuals brought their PC mentality from home to work to enable desktop publishing productivity long before the IT department agreed to support the PC. It happened with Linux, as computer geeks brought Linux to work to enable web infrastructure long before the IT department acknowledged the benefit of Linux. In fact, Red Hat created a $20M business selling boxes of CDs and documentation at CompUSA and Frye's before the first IT customer paid a single dollar to the company. I think Amazon is now driving the vision for the future of enterprise computing, and the digital consumer is declaring that they have got it right.

With it's Simple Storage Service (S3) and Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), Amazon is demonstrating that it is possible to dramatically lower the cost and complexity of “web scale” computing to a price point where even a kid can get into the game. With S3, storage is only $.43/gigabyte*month, with an interface that is simple to use. Likewise with EC2, computing infrastructure costs only $.10/CPU*hour, and there is no litany of complicated rules for promoting your application to production (there are some rules, but relative to the promotion process in most enterprises, they are an order of magnitude less complex). Imagine the difficult conversation between the CIO and the CEO of a company when the CEO realizes what Amazon has accomplished:

CEO: Remind me again what we charge our business units for storage and computing in order to fund your department?

CIO: Well, for storage, we charge the business units about $12/gigabyte/month, and for computing it is about $9/CPU*hour. We re-coup about 60% of the IT budget with these chargebacks.

CEO: So I see these credit card charges from Amazon on my statement, and I asked my 14 year old kid what he was doing to rack up this bill. He tells me that he is running a wiki on Amazon where all the kids in his soccer league post information, stats, links, etc. regarding their teams. I take a look, and this site has everything, including full streaming video, forums, etc. He tells me it is $.43/gigabyte/month for storage, and $.10/CPU*hr for computing. He tells me not to worry about the charges, because they are running a hot dog stand at the games these days to pay me back for the Amazon bill. And the hot dog stand is going to turn a profit to boot. What do you think we should do about this situation?

CIO: Uuuhhhhh, I don't know? Maybe we should open a hot dog stand?

Bottom line, the CIO's that are not getting prepared to be the “Amazon” for their company are getting prepared to be a hot dog vendor. They must simplify the cost and complexity of delivering compute infrastructure to the business units by at least an order of magnitude, or the business units are going to take their business to Amazon or some other provider that “gets it.” I am not saying that Amazon has everything the enterprise needs today, but they have the right idea about what it should cost and how simple it should be to use.

The suppliers see it, because their business is threatened by Amazon. EMC is talking about it in USA Today, and Sun is promoting black box computing. The future of the datacenter is a “simple storage service” and an “elastic compute cloud.” The days of impossible complexity and “wait 6 months to get a server provisioned for your application” are definitely numbered.