Sure, big iron like Arista's 7500E Data Center Switch, Broadcom's massively integrated Trident II switch chip, and EMC's high-performance and exceedingly scalable VMAX and VNX arrays still generate plenty of crowds and headlines, but the real focus of development resources, R&D dollars and executive attention is on software. If not eating the world, software is definitely encompassing a greater and greater share of it.
Nowhere was this more apparent than at EMC World, and nothing drove home the point with greater force and clarity than EMC CEO Joe Tucci's admission -- nay, proud affirmation -- of the fact that the storage goliath that rose to dominate its industry on the strength of its powerful and burly hardware now devotes the vast majority of its development resources on software. In response to a question at a media briefing on the effect of hardware commodification and the attendant proliferation of white box storage systems on the company's business, Tucci stated that at most, EMC has a mere 500 engineers developing hardware, out of 12,000 total. Indeed, Tucci claimed the company embraces commodity hardware wherever it can, citing as supporting evidence the fact that EMC makes only one custom ASIC. Chiming in, EMC COO David Goulden reinforced the point, saying, "Our value is in the integration and the packaging." Goulden left unsaid the implication that building a VNX array is easy; making it operate like a VNX array isn't.
[ For more on the increasingly sophisticated scale-out storage systems seen at EMC, see AT EMC, Scale Out Storage Grows Up. ]
Software's ascendance was hammered home even further by EMC World's star attraction: its just-announced software-defined storage product, ViPR. As I wrote in describing ViPR's significance to EMC, "There are over a dozen sessions devoted to software designed storage and data centers at EMC World, and it's clear ViPR is EMC's contribution to the storage component of that vision. It's hard to overstate the significance of this move, as EMC is at risk of being undercut by less expensive rivals in a rapidly commodifying storage market, and as software becomes more important than hardware."
But the software theme didn't stop there. Other big EMC World announcements, like upgrades to the firm's Isilon scale-out arrays, new versions of its storage and IT service management suites, and the unveiling of its big data analytics spinout Pivotal's strategy were also all about software.
The software theme was pervasive, like the clouds that shadowed normally radiant Las Vegas throughout the week. Each Interop is typically themed by a concept reflecting the current industry zeitgeist, and this year it was SDN. It was not only the topic of numerous panel sessions, including our SDN Buyer's Guide overview, but the concept (or, less charitably, buzzword) most vendors seemed compelled to weave into their sales pitches and strategy narratives.
Yet SDN may have already jumped the shark within one Interop cycle as the discussion this week increasingly turned from the nuts and bolts of packet switching and flow control to the tangibly useful realm of automated virtual network administration and dynamically adaptive network applications. At Interop, the incessant improvements in hardware specs and features were background players to the increasingly visible software applications using an emerging ecosystem of programmable network resources decoupled from the actual hardware delivery vehicles by various software abstraction layers.
Software was the star in numerous Interop venues, sessions and booth demos. For example, while the Grand Award winner was Arista's engineering tour de force, the 7500E switch, four of the seven Best of Interop category winners were software, as was the Audience Choice award. In his leadoff keynote, Cisco SVP Robert Soderbery talked about the increasing connectivity between everyday objects via the convergence of mobile networks and micro sensors, commonly called the Internet of Things. Such hyper-connectivity of telemetric devices will enable new categories of applications, such as the basketball tracking app Soderbery demoed that could be used to enhance the fan experience at NBA games.
It was a similar theme to that outlined at his EMC World keynote by Pivotal CEO and EMC Chief Strategist Paul Maritz. Indeed, Maritz claimed in a media Q&A session that the opportunity to develop more sophisticated applications using pervasive telemetry of device-generated data (as illustrated by this oft-shown GE TV ad) and new big data fabrics was a key reason behind GE's decision to buy into 10% of the new Pivotal spin out.
In conducting nearly 20 briefings with network vendors large and small at Interop, I found nearly all of them led with their software strategy and innovations, not their sexy new hardware. In a world where anyone can build a 100+-port 10-GbE or 32-port 40-GbE 1U ToR switch using the latest merchant silicon (to wit, this Marvel reference platform ), the big networking vendors understand that the only way to differentiate data center networking gear is through software. Customers and even some vendors have also come to this realization and rightfully worry about vendor lock-in through proprietary software, à la Windows, meaning standardization efforts like ONF, Open Daylight, Open vSwitch and the OpenStack Foundation are of strategic importance in shaping the contours of tomorrow's data center.
An iconic gambling mecca where the one-armed bandit has been replaced by touchscreen gaming machines and cashiers by ATM-like ticket redemption kiosks seems an appropriate venue for extravaganzas like EMC World and Interop showcasing our coming software-defined IT environment.
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