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The Spectrum of Hardware for the Cloud

Within a decade, our industry had transitioned from software to hardware and back to software

When I joined Cisco in 1996, I was sitting in new-hire orientation and distinctly remember one of the VPs tell us that, "we are a software company".  I remember being surprised at this, because we had just finished touring an incredible lab filled with huge boxes of blinking lights. But after working with the products for a few months, it became obvious that the value to our customers was the stability and flexibility of the IOS software (no kids, not the stuff on your iPhone).

Ten years went by and I found myself in a spin-out that was using the ODM hardware manufacturers used by Linksys. We expected those products to be very simple, since they were targeted at very low price points. But as we began testing them, we were shocked at the performance levels - they were 20% of the cost of "enterprise" products with at least 20-30% better performance,  including 80-90% of the same features. Wow!  The previous 10 years had been all about custom-built hardware and ASICs, and now we had crossed-over to where "merchant silicon" was a legitimate alternative.

Within a decade, our industry had transitioned from software to hardware and back to software being the key value element in IT infrastructure. Seeing those price/performance economics, you might think that this would quickly become the defacto standard for all vendors, just like other electronics in other industries (TVs, Kitchen Appliances, etc.). But that's not the case. In fact, the IT industry has actually spread out the way they deal with hardware in a wide spectrum.

Custom ASICs
Cisco continues to lead the market in custom high-end ASIC development, making it a critical part of their future strategy in the data center. Juniper is another company that relies heavily on custom ASIC development to control their ability to deliver features across their platforms. Both of these companies are also starting to create programs to allow programability or API-level interaction with their systems. On the other end of custom hardware are companies like SeaMicro (acquired by AMD) creating unique hardware density to link low-power CPU chips, driving density and cost/watt costs down dramatically.

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More Stories By Brian Gracely

A 20 year technology veteran, Brian Gracely is VP of product management at Virtustream. He holds a CCIE #3077 and an MBA from Wake Forest University.

Throughout his career Brian has led Cisco, NetApp, EMC and Virtustream into emerging markets and through technology transitions. An active participant in the virtualization and cloud computing communities, his industry viewpoints and writing can also be found on Twitter @bgracely, on his blog Clouds of Change and his podcast The Cloudcast (.net). He is a VMware vExpert and was named a "Top 100" Cloud Computing blogger by Cloud Computing Journal.

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