On the future of the computing industry (part 1)

Over the course of the next few months, I will write much about where I see the industry heading in 2014, 2015, and over the course of the coming decades. This first post is about the move to verticalized solutions, but at the same time the potential for a truly Open commoditized Cloud computing platform of the future.

The world I see ahead is a future of inevitable, unpreventable verticalization, which can be steered (by a few good men and women) to retain an Open (enough) software platform. It’s not all about ARM. But let’s take ARM as an example (and only an example here). For a “few” million dollars, I can license an architecture and SoC component IP sufficient to build my own “Server-on-Chip” style design integrating all of the features that I want on-die and/or on-package. For a bit more, I can license the architecture itself and go build it myself. “It” isn’t a Computer Architecture. “It” is a Hyperscale server SoC exploiting integration advances to do everything on-chip that we used to build in giant boxes filled with air. There are plenty enough people out there you can hire to go do this. Some will succeed, other will fail, but the minds are available on the market today.

All of this integration is possible because Moore’s Law said we would reach this point by now (you think Moore’s Law is all about faster and faster because you’ve been drinking the wrong koolaid for years, it’s actually about circuit density). Meanwhile, his friend Dennard tells us that the traditional vendors have been fighting a war of MHz and building cathedrals that won’t scale as they try ever more cleaver tricks. My favorite quote on the matter comes from AMD’s Andrew Feldman, “you’re using a Space Shuttle to go to a Grocery Store!”. What we have is “good enough”. And the Innovator’s Dilemma tells us the rest. The future isn’t about architecture X vs. architecture Y. It’s about energy, integrated fabrics, Hyperscale designs combing good enough compute performance at obscene levels of density fueling the scale we need for tomorrow. Take a look around at the industry and see where some of the leading minds in Computer Architecture are landing (hint: use your eyes and ears) and you’ll see that this train of verticalization has left the station, and it won’t be returning. Those vendors you like today? There will be 20 more of them tomorrow.

Done right, we reach a point in about ten years from now where computing becomes a simple utility. Amazon spot pricing move over. In fact, Cloud Computing as we know it today is totally nonsensical drivel. In the future, units of computation are standardized on some level to the point that they are traded on open markets as commodities, with speculators trading on futures in much the same way that they do on crops and other commodities today (I believe this so strongly that I preemptively filed patents in this area several years ago). Workloads dynamically move around the world in response to many stimuli (instantaneous pricing, weather, energy availability, economic, security and political concerns, etc.). Nobody will pay for their Operating System per-se, but they will pay for complete solutions that provide all of the plumbing necessary to build the new “Cloud” (I hate that term) of tomorrow. And the company (or individuals) who build the technology that can power the exchanges and commoditized computing of tomorrow will be the ones cashing in at the end.

The coming decade will see also the rise of heavily integrated hardware and software solutions. As I noted above, these days “anyone” can build their own custom SoC. And many will. Many of these will follow the Apple model, building walled gardens running their own hardware, own firmware, own Operating System. So “done wrong” the future becomes a scary Apple-move-over Dystopia in which we long for the “good old days” of the Unix Wars when vendors produced such “compatible” systems. Some of the really big boys have all of the incentive in the world to go build these walled gardens, and we have very little time to steer them right.

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