How open cloud architectures enable innovation to thrive



Why should enterprises care about open cloud infrastructure? Because in the future, everyone will be a cloud service provider.

By Michael McNerney, Vice President of Marketing and Network Security, Supermicro

The infrastructure behind your cloud is often referred to as “commodity hardware,” a term that implies that the servers and storage that power today’s hyperscale platforms are as indistinguishable from each other as corn and soybeans.

That characterization ignores the tremendous amount of innovation that continues to go on at the platform level. Commodity platforms like the x86 architecture create a baseline that enables creativity to flourish higher in the value chain. Innovation in infrastructure enabled by open standards is what has made cloud computing so dynamic.

It’s been said that the success of Silicon Valley is built upon two dynamics: Moore’s Law and open architectures. The former presumes that what’s impractical today will be practical tomorrow. That enables companies to look beyond current technology and build innovative systems for the future. The latter relentlessly moves innovation up the value chain. For example, Linux’s victorious emergence from the scrum of the Unix wars was a win for everyone because competition in software moved higher up the stack. The x86 architecture that was born on the desktop is now the platform for everything from cloud servers to the open radio access network (O-RAN) that will support the coming 5G wireless wave.

What’s often missed in the discussion of winners and losers in the Internet Age is the critical role that top companies have played in innovating in infrastructure components. Google built a better search engine in part because it figured out how to make low-cost x86 boxes a viable alternative to expensive Unix servers. Facebook can save an unlimited number of member photos because it innovated in creating cheap scale-out storage architectures. In both examples – and many others – an essential element of success was innovative new applications and services that leverage first-to-market innovation at the cloud infrastructure level. What came first, the application or the infrastructure innovation? Neither company could have succeeded without creating infrastructure to support its innovative services.

Adding value rather than reinventing the wheel

Openness comes in many forms, beginning with the open-source software that undergirds the internet. Open-source software is now so ubiquitous that Gartner last year estimated that 90% of developers currently depend on open-source components. That massive codebase allows developers to focus on features that add value rather than continually reinventing the wheel. Companies building software today should adopt as many open source components as possible and focus on areas where they can add the greatest value.

Open standards enable competition to move up the value chain. Protocols like NVMe in storage, TCP/IP in networking, PCIe in computer backplanes, and DMTF in device management enable all the players in the market to agree on a set of basic rules so they can compete in areas that have greater value to their customers. Uber wouldn’t exist without the foundation of geolocation and high-bandwidth mobile access that others had built.

A third type of openness is the APIs that are intrinsic to cloud-native software and infrastructure. APIs have revolutionized how software is constructed by enabling developers to selectively expose services for others to use, either freely or for a small fee. That means a company building a real estate application can integrate OpenStreetMap or Google Maps without taking on the massive burden of building a mapping application from scratch. APIs democratize software development, enabling two-person startups to build applications of incredible sophistication.

Hardware APIs enable developers to access hardware functionality such as encryption, vector packet processing, graphic processing units (GPUs), and NVMe storage so that they access accelerated performance from optimized hardware through standard APIs. Traditionally encryption for network processing required high cost proprietary hardware, but now those accelerators are accessed through standard APIs allowing low cost industry standard hardware to be used.

Technology providers used to compete for control at both the infrastructure and application level. The overwhelming popularity of APIs is recognition that ecosystems have greater value than walled gardens. Exposing services enables others to innovate on top of a platform to benefit customers and attract other ecosystem players.

At Supermicro, we are big believers in open architectures. Standard platforms and APIs enable everyone from a startup to a global enterprise to access world-class services. Open APIs drive innovation at the top layers of the stack with new applications and services as well as at the lower layer with infrastructure enhancements.

We leverage what we call a building block architecture that enables literally thousands of different configurations of platforms and systems so exactly the best hardware configuration can be provided for any cloud service. So if you’re doing machine learning training using Red Hat storage software, we can configure a multi-GPU system for that specific use case. If space is at a premium in an edge scenario, we can optimize the amount of computing power for the smallest possible footprint. If you want a heavy compute node to be a manager of scale-out boxes with a specific configuration of flash and rotating media, building blocks can be used to optimize a 1U box with an NVMe interface and multiple flash drives. The proliferation of open standards gives customers more flexibility than ever to match platform to purpose.

There is still plenty of room for innovation in infrastructure. For example, we worked with Intel to build a disaggregated architecture that enables internal subsystems within a server to be upgraded without replacing the entire server. We are also working closely with service providers to build data center-class systems for telemetry applications at the edge.

Openness also accelerates innovation.  Instead of waiting for new technologies to be included in proprietary infrastructure offerings, innovation can be accessed day-one through open interfaces.  Those new technologies can create competitive advantages for the service provider that can leverage them first to create new compelling services.

Why should enterprises care about open cloud infrastructure? It’s because, in the future, everyone will be a cloud service provider. What will differentiate your cloud service will not just be the service you deliver, but how and how fast you leverage the innovation in the underlying cloud infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the fact that delivering products and services online to customers will be an essential element of doing business in the future. Those companies that can innovate in the cloud will be the big winners. That requires innovation in infrastructure.

Timing matters. The history of IT has shown that first movers reap the greatest benefits of breakthroughs. Customers who adopt open architectures and innovate upon them at both the application and infrastructure scale will be the big winners. In the same way a chef needs corn and soybeans to create a world-class meal, commodities are essential to inspiration.

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Organizations today are under unprecedented pressure to adapt. Intel has delivered five generations of custom silicon built for cloud scale, along with co-engineering with partners and relationships with top cloud providers. Today’s top clouds are powered by Intel® Xeon® Scalable Processors.