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‘Old Man Yells At Cloud’ By: Bill Doerrfeld on May 3, 2021 Leave a Comment

These days, software programmers are increasingly estranged from hardware. Most millennials and Generation Z developers have never had to mount physical servers. They have never been lulled by the gentle hum of a server room chugging along in synchronous harmony. Today, you don’t even necessarily have to build your own PC or worry too much about disk space.

Instead, cloud-native software developers conveniently offload the server burden to cloud service providers (CSPs). Hosting in a cloud, like AWS or Azure, for example, makes a lot of sense — it allows programmers to hone in on their own specializations. Elastic computing models are cost-effective for startups, and CSPs typically offer a vertical stack with helpful integrated platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings. However, what are we sacrificing?

Well, first, research shows the cloud model becomes less cost-effective as a business scales. Second, as more companies transform into technology platforms, cloud usage could better enable their competition. Third, more direct access to bare metal could be an attractive option for certain service providers to increase ownership and control workload optimizations.

These arguments are bolstered by large companies such as Dropbox, Facebook, Walmart, and others that chose to cut their cloud allegiances in favor of building their own data centers or adopting colocation (in other words, running your own hardware in someone else’s data center, also known as “colo”).

I recently met with Zach Smith, managing director, bare metal, Equinix, to understand the current state of hardware-as-a-service and the future of hybrid server models. He believes that in the coming years, improved interfaces that access low-level infrastructure will arm IT with better consumer choice that brings them closer to the metal. Yet, to enable this, the hardware world will need to take some lessons from the upper stack regarding transparency, open source community, programmability and improved developer experiences.

Sidestepping the Cloud

Public clouds arose as a convenient one-stop-shop to host entire software application environments. As a result, “we have a generation of developers who will never physically touch that hardware,” Smith said.

The cloud infrastructure services market was worth $39.8 billion in Q4 2020, estimates according to estimates from Statista. Having witnessed the “movement toward verticalization of hyperscale clouds,” Smith now sees the infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) market as an industry of high margins and escalating fees. This is echoed by others who seek to reduce rising cloud expenses.

Though cloud computing usage is growing considerably, the data center isn’t dead. Instead, computing models are morphing and becoming hybridized. “By 2025, 85% of infrastructure strategies will integrate on-premises, colocation, cloud and edge delivery options, compared with 20% in 2020,” predicts David Cappuccio, distinguished VP analyst, in a Gartner report.

As hybrid multi-cloud approaches emerge, Smith notices a resurgence of attention being paid to infrastructure. Some massive service providers are starting to construct their own data center estates; others, such as Box, now own and lease servers from data center providers.

Benefits of Bare Metal

As mentioned above, there are a few reasons to move back to the metal. First, it may simply be more cost-effective for large deployments. In his well-researched article, Antoine Beaupré compared monthly recurring costs for colocation versus an AWS bill, and found the break-even point rested at $100,000 per month, or 150 Amazon m4.2xlarge instances. His research also found that I/O-heavy applications are more costly in the cloud than via colocation.

“While many services simply launch in the cloud without the organizations behind them considering other options, large content-hosting services have actually moved back to their own data centers,” Beaupré said.

In addition to cost savings, automating colocation with a programmable layer could also offer more fine-grained control over computing optimizations. “I believe what we’re creating is an operating model for a rapidly changing hardware substrate,” said Smith. He described how bare metal opens up a neutral infrastructure substrate to control physical networking aspects such as cross-connects, IP transits and peering — a benefit Smith half-jokingly called ‘NetDevSecOps.’

Another argument is that investing in hardware could, ironically, bring sustainability benefits. A report conducted by ITRenew estimates that, of the total embodied energy required within a server’s entire lifespan, 77% is used to manufacture the hardware itself. In contrast, the operational energy used over a server’s lifetime only accounts for 22%.

Thus, there is an environmental benefit to reversing the trend of a make-dispose economy continually producing new servers. Instead, hardware ownership could encourage a more circular economy. “A circular economy aims to end our take-make-dispose economy, which is a very linear approach, and instead, keep products at their highest possible value for as long as possible,” according to the ITRenew report.

Learning From the Upper Stack

How can we build a fundamental non-opinionated infrastructure platform? According to Smith, the industry needs “hardware and networks that are programmable and usable by a developer generation.” To Smith, changing firewalls at a kernel level, altering how the runtime works or controlling the IP stack, should all be operational via API commands.

Yet, hardware accessibility is still rather opaque and, historically, not as developer-friendly. “How can we take abstraction and community-driven ideas from up the stack?” Smith asks. To enable these changes, he believes the hardware world should model itself on the upper stack in a few key areas:

  • Transparency: The hardware world is not as easy to comprehend. “When you get to the physical side of switches and routers, it’s still arcane,” Smith said. Increased transparency in functionality and ownership will be required to turn servers into something all developers can operate.
  • Open-source community: In the same way the software world is built on strong developer communities, hardware will require an open community to normalize things like firmware, boot order and support for differences between drives.
  • Programmability: “Self-service and programmability are requirements for most things these days — there’s no difference with physical infrastructure,” says Smith. Take the rise of the API economy — today’s mantra is, essentially, if something is possible in a UI, it should be possible through an API. Similarly, if it can be done in a server, it should be controllable with an API.
  • Quality developer experience: Self-service, programmable infrastructure is just the beginning — interfaces to operate infrastructure require good developer experience. Smith feels that hardware requires an improved buying experience and better life cycle management capabilities. This could be enabled by open source tools like Tinkerbell, a provisioning and workflow engine supported by Linux Foundation.
  • Back to the Metal — A Platformer’s Dream?

    All this is not to say the public cloud isn’t valuable – it absolutely is. The cloud has been necessary and has proven resilient enough to support online business and digital life as we know it throughout the pandemic and for years prior. “In 2020 and beyond, most organizations are going to be transforming into a completely cloud-based environment,” said Werner Vogel, CTO, Amazon, during an online AWS summit.

    But, even if most organizations are in the cloud, that doesn’t mean all of their assets will be. Service providers, especially, may cling to hybrid models for more control, to avoid supporting the competition and, perhaps, even to save money. Private data centers could also increase security. In an era where raw computing power is becoming a new asset (quite literally, in the case of cryptocurrency), the server rack is starting to look sexy again.

    “The magic happens when software and hardware work together,” said Smith. But, giving access to physical technology to a generation that has never touched it will require some ingenuity. As Smith says, this could be done by “automating colo” through more usable, standardized interfaces for hardware management.

    “We will see a future in next 10 years where operated software is separated from cloud infrastructure,” Smith said. That’s a bold statement, as such a dramatic change would, in effect, usurp the current cloud provider IaaS market share, altering the distribution and economic model associated with global software.

    While this dream may seem far-fetched, if more platforms decide to cut out the cloud middleman and go it alone, it could materialize.

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