The Network Is The Computer, Again

Today, the old Sun Microsystems tagline rings truer than ever. In our cloud-centric world, perhaps computers don't exist at all anymore.

Patrick Hubbard

May 6, 2014

4 Min Read
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Once upon a time, John Gage, chief scientist and master geek at Sun Microsystems, coined the phrase, "The network is the computer." The words went on to be the company's tagline for many years.

Just before the bubble burst, Sun tried a few others, including, "The dot in dot-com." But after all these years, we're still hard pressed to best John's original tagline, and Oracle repeats it to this day, for good reason. The phrase "The network is the computer" continues to be true.

But like any great assertion that becomes a truism, this was periodically not the case. Sure, at times the network was the computer when all the underlying elements (and a few planets) were in exact alignment. At other periods in IT history, though, the network was merely a bridge between autonomous nodes on independent missions providing only mundane transport. 

This generally occurred when IT got stuck behind interim technology choke points. The network as a computer reality has also at times been stuck in the penalty box for availability limitations, hardline security policies, storage performance issues, and -- most recently -- last-mile WAN limitations.

The requisite cloud observation
Although cloud is touted as the cure-all for IT ills, including Poison Ivy, virtualization and especially cloud may codify the reality of the network as the computer -- possibly even redefining what a computer is. But there's an important and in some circles unpopular point to clarify here: software-as-a-service (SaaS) is not cloud.

Perhaps no recent technology has had more serendipitous uplift then SasS, which has been so well repositioned that many civilians now argue that cloud and SaaS are the same thing. In this context, if you're a service in a privately owned datacenter -- and not an elastically provisioned collection of services -- offered publicly with transactional metering and flying in formation with related services, you're not cloud. And that distinction is important when we talk about computer resources.

But even before enterprises began moving past the hype and on to the cloud in earnest, we virtualized enough of our servers in existing datacenters to discover that compute for the most part has one function: processing queues. From single ESXi hosts to multi-datacenter vSphere and Citrix or Hyper-V clusters, virtualization is an abstraction layer that turns all resources a computer needs into resource queues.

Storage, memory, networking, and CPUs are all presented to compute via managed queues, with the hypervisor rationing resources directed by policy. And with the exception of old-school single-box hosts with DAS, those resources are physically distributed behind the VM host on the network.

With cloud, we're simply moving some resource queue end-points offsite, whether inside the application with fat request services offloading what were once many local processing tasks, or under the stack using basic services like remote storage. This trend is accelerating, and there's no going back. More traditional computer component dislocation, more abstraction, and increasing process decentralization have inexorably wound the network into the threads of computers themselves.

Take a good look at your rack
So when you step back, tilt your head to the side and regard your remaining U's of gear, where is the computer? The VM's memory may be resident in the sticks of a blade, but it's also flowing through cables to the top-of-rack switch. It's in the storage network. It's in the tendrils flowing out your WAN to cloud services. If you sever any of these connections, you'll virtually core dump and service delivery to users will be interrupted. Face it, not only is the network the computer, computers don't really exist at all anymore.

So, how would John Gage tagline computing today? You may be thinking of something like this, "The ethereal processing context existing simultaneously in many parts of the datacenter is the computer." But no, he'd be more concise than that. Perhaps, "The resource policy assembly is the computer." That's better, but still too overloaded, jargon-filled and VM config-centric. Maybe we should try, "Like cake, there is no computer." Uh no, but existentially, at least, that's getting closer.

No, I believe John was years ahead of his time and right all along. There may be no way to improve on his original statement. But we might consider adding a single word to indicate acceptance: "The network is finally the computer."

About the Author(s)

Patrick Hubbard

Head Geek & Director of Technical Product Marketing, SolarWindsPatrick Hubbard is a head geek and director of technical product marketing at SolarWinds, an IT management software provider based in Austin, Texas. Hubbard, who joined SolarWinds in 2007, has more than 20 years of experience in product management and strategy, technical evangelism, sales engineering, and software development, at both Fortune 500 companies and startups spanning the high-tech, transportation, financial services, and telecom industries.

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