RIP – SPARC and Anant

A year back when Robert Garner  sent an invite for the 30th anniversary of SPARC,  little did I expect  or believe events that transpired later would happen. I did this post on history of SPARC and its impact to the computing world and speculated on the future of computing.

Since then – on September 1′ 2017, Oracle decided to terminate all SPARC development efforts and laid off the entire development team. 30 years and perhaps 3000+ world class engineers and  >$5B in R&D spend over 30 years, >15 million CPUs built and delivered in Systems from Sun (generating >$100B in revenue) – SPARC flamed out. RIP SPARC.

More significant was one of key member of the initial SPARC development (Anant Agrwal) at Sun, who led the development of SPARC from its initial design through two key inflection points (1984-2002) left 2000+ of his world class engineers and his family on May 28th. A small sample of the Tsunami wave

  • 2000+ careers were launched during his tenure.
  • 10+ companies were founded by the engineers who worked under his leadership.
  • Processors from 1.3uM to 0.65uM CMOS (a decade of lithography feature) with a healthy mix of CMOS, ECL and even GaAS
  • 1000+ Patents created by the team
  • Many industry firsts –
    • RISC 32 bit (1987).
    • Microprocessor in a gate array (1987)
    • Microprocessor SoC (1991)
    • 64 bit processor (1995)
    • Glueless SMP
    • VIS (multi-media extension to FPU) (1995)
    • multi-core & multi-threading (2001)

His departure marks the bookend of the both his life and SPARC – how tragically co-incidental and a  reflection of the wake he left. A befitting bio of Anant Agrawal is posted here  at the computer history museum.

Sharing a poignant image of his family holding his hands around the time of his departure.

anant

                                                                            R I P

                                                                           Anant

VMware moment in storage: V2.0

Back in October’2016, I posted this blog on storage – speculating that we are on the verge on the next big shift in storage – towards a distributed storage platform. Speculated that an emerging company will stand out from the plethora of startups in this space with a unique technology and business model.

18 months later, I would like revise that thesis. What remains true are the following

  1. Yes, the world of storage today follows  distributed system design
  2. Yes, it will have a new business model

What I expected then was a startup company to emerge  and exploit this category. I believe that will be less likely now as the market dynamics specifically the consumption model has changed.

What is in vogue today is the cloud like consumption model. Clearly there is AWS, Google and Azure in the cloud storage space and a good part of storage needs are addressed by them. Which also means they are eating a part of the storage pie (speculating upto 30% of the market in dollar value – perhaps higher in capacity). The notion of storage only software companies are less likely today than then (2016). As the consumption model increasingly looks like cloud like, private cloud is emerging as the new category. That means, storage (distributed)  that is resilient, feature rich and bundled with other parts of the cloud stack. The three stacks that have a chance to gather market share in this space are VMC (VSAN), Nutanix (NDFS) and Azure (Blob storage).

As the enterprises (big and small) shift their infrastructure spend to public cloud and now evolving private cloud, there is little room left for traditional appliance like storage. While standalone solutions from Software Defined Storage (Ceph, MapR, Excelero, Datera, Driverscale to name a few) do have a play, the emergence of VMware cloud stacks (VMC), Nutanix and Azure stack says the market is accepting an integrated solution where good is ‘good enough’. i.e while these storage solutions from the top three private cloud players are architected well, they also meet the ‘good enough’ category leaving little room for any compelling alternatives.

So where do these ideas/companies go next?  Cloud agnostic multi-cloud multi-data access solution that provides customers independence and avoid lock-in is an option. The challenge is competing against the investment of the big three is hard. Focus on emerging mode 2 applications and its needs – containers, KV stores, new data access methods.  Potentially. Perhaps a variant of that, but focusing on the new and emerging memory stacks (memory centric).  One has to combine a unique technology that satisfies a need along with unique business model, disruption will happen.

Again lets revist this in 2020 (18 months from now) and see how much of this speculation becomes reality.

Open Systems to Open Source to Open Cloud.

“I’m all for sharing, but I recognize the truly great things may not come from that environment.” – Bill Joy (Sun Founder, BSD Unix hacker) commenting on opensource back in 2010.

In March at Google Next’17, Google officially called their cloud offering as ‘Open Cloud’. That prompted me to pen this note and reflect upon the history of Open (System, Source, Cloud) and what are the properties that make them successful.

A little know tidbit in history is that the early opensource effort of modern computing era (1980s to present) was perhaps Sun Microsystems. Back in 1982,  each shipment of the workstation was bundled with a tape of BSD – i.e. modern day version of open source distribution (BSD License?). In many ways much earlier to Linux, Open Source was initiated by Sun and in fact driven by Bill Joy. But Sun is associated with ‘Open Systems’ instead of Open Source. Had the AT&T lawyers not held Sun hostage, the trajectory of Open Source would be completely different i.e. Linux may look different. While Sun and Scott McNealy (open source)  tried to go back to its roots as an open source model, the 2nd attempt did not get rewarded with success (20 years later).

My view on success of any open source model requires the following 3 conditions to make it viable or perhaps as a sustainable, standalone business and distribution model.

  • Ubiquity: Everybody needs it i.e. its ubiquitous and large user base
  • Governance: Requires a ‘benevolent dictator’ to guide/shape and set the direction. Democracy is anarchy in this model.
  • Support: Well defined and  credible support model. Throwing over the wall will not work.

Back to Open Systems: Sun early in its life shifted to a marketing message of open systems rather effectively. Publish the APIs, interfaces and specs and compete on implementation. A powerful story telling that resonated with the customer base and to a large extent Sun was all about open systems. Sun used that to take on Apollo and effectively out market and outsell Apollo workstations. The Open Systems mantra was the biggest selling story for Sun through 1980s and 1990s.

In parallel around 1985, Richard Stallman pushed free software and evolution of that model led to the origins of Open Source as a distribution before it became a business model, starting with Linus and thus Linux.  Its ironic that 15+ years after the initial sale of Open systems, Open source via Linux came to impact Sun’s Unix (Solaris).

With Linux – The Open Source era was born (perhaps around 1994 with the first full release of Linux). A number of companies have been formed, notably RedHat that exploited and by far the largest and longest viable standalone open source company as well.

 

Slide1

The open systems in the modern era  perhaps began with Sun in 1982 and perhaps continued for 20 odd years with Open Source becoming a distribution and business model between 1995 and 2015 but will continue for another decade. 20 years later, we see the emergence of ‘open cloud’ or at-least the marketing term from Google.

In the past 20 years of the existence of Open Source, it has followed the classical bell curve of interest, adoption, hype, exuberance, disillusionment and beginning of decline. There is no hard data to assert Open Source is in decline, but its obvious based on simple analyses that with the emergence of the cloud (AWS, Azure and  Google), the consumption model of Open Source infrastructure software has changed. The big three in cloud have effectively killed the model as the consumption and distribution model of infrastructure technologies is rapidly changing. There are few open source products that are in vogue today that has reasonable traction, but struggling to find a viable standalone business model are elastic , SPARK (Data Bricks), Open Stack (Mirantis, SUSE, RHAT), Cassandra (Data Stax) ,  amongst others. Success requires all three conditions- Ubiquity, Governance and Support.

The Open Source model for infrastructure is effectively in decline when you talk to the venture community. While that was THE model until perhaps 2016, Open Source has been the ‘in thing’, the decline is accelerating with the emergence of public cloud consumption model.

Quoting Bill (circa 2010) – says a lot about the viability of open source model – “The Open Source theorem says that if you give away source code, innovation will occur. Certainly, Unix was done this way. With Netscape and Linux we’ve seen this phenomenon become even bigger. However, the corollary states that the innovation will occur elsewhere. No matter how many people you hire. So the only way to get close to the state of the art is to give the people who are going to be doing the innovative things the means to do it. That’s why we had built-in source code with Unix. Open source is tapping the energy that’s out there”.  The smart people now work at one of the big three (AWS, Azure and Google) and that is adding to the problems for both innovation and consumption of open source.

That brings to Open Cloud – what is it? While  Google announced they are the open cloud – what does that mean? Does that mean Google is going to open source all the technologies it uses in its cloud? Does that mean its going to expose the APIs and enable one to move any application from GCP to AWS or Azure seamlessly i.e .compete on the implementation? It certainly has done a few things. Open Sourced Kubernetes. It has opened up Tensor flow (ML framework). But the term open cloud is not clear. Certainly the marketing message of ‘open cloud’ is out there. Like Yin and Yang, for every successful ‘closed’ platform, there has been a successful ‘open’ platform.  If there is an open cloud, what is a closed cloud. The what and who needs to be defined and clarified in the coming years. From Google we have seen a number of ideas and technologies that eventually has ended up as open source projects. From AWS we see a number of services becoming de-facto standard (much like the Open Systems thesis – S3 to name one).

Kubernetes is the most recent ubiquitous open source software that seems to be well supported. Its still missing the ‘benevolent dictator’ – personality like Bill Joy or Richard Stallman or Linus Torvalds to drive its direction. Perhaps its ‘Google’ not a single person?  Using  the same criteria above  – Open Stack has the challenge of missing that ‘benevolent dictator’. Extending beyond Kubernetes, it will be interesting to see the evolution and adoption of containers+kubernetes vs the evolution of new computing frameworks like Lamda (functions etc). Is it time to consider an ‘open’ version of Lambda.

Regardless of all of these framework and API debates and open vs closed –  one observation:

Is Open Cloud really ‘Open Data’ as Data is the new oil that drives the whole new category of computing in the cloud. Algorithms and APIs will eventually open up. But Data can remain ‘closed’ and that remains a key value especially in the emerging ML/DL space.

Time will tell.

1987 – 2017: SPARC Systems & Computing Epochs

 

30 Years of SPARC systems is this month in July’1987 when Sun 4/260 was launched.  A month before,  I started my professional career at Sun – to be exact June 15, 1987. 16+ years of my professional life was shaped by Sun, SPARC, Systems and more importantly the whole gamut of innovations that Sun did from chips to systems to operating systems to programming languages, covering the entire spectrum of computing architecture. I used to pinch myself for getting paid to work at Sun.  It was one great computer company that changed computing landscape.

 

Sun4_Launch

 

The SPARC story starts with Bill Joy without whom Sun would not be in existence (Bill was the fourth founder, though) as he basically drove re-inventing computing systems at Sun and thus the world at large.  Bill drove  technical direction of computing at Sun and initiated many efforts – Unix/Solaris, Programming languages, RISC to name a few.  David Patterson (UC Berkeley, now at Google) influenced the RISC direction. [David advised students who changed the computing industry and seems like he is involved with the next shift with TPUs @ Google – more later]. I call out Bill amongst the four (Andy Bechtolsheim, Scott Mcnealy, Vinod Khosla) in this context as without Bill, Sun would not have pulled the talent – he was basically a big black hole that sucked all talent across the country/globe. Without that talent, the innovations and the 30 year history of computing would not have been possible. A good architecture is one that lives for 30 years. This one did. Not sure about the next 30. More on this later. Back then, I dropped my PhD on AI (was getting disillusioned with then version of AI) for a Unix on my desktop and Bill Joy. Decision was that simple.

From historic accounts, the SPARC sytem initiative started in 1984. I joined Sun when the Sun 4/260 (Robert Garner was the lead) was going to be announced in July. It was  VME based backplane built both as a pedestal computer (12 VME boards) as well as rack mount system replaced then Sun 3/260 and Sun 3/280.  It housed the first SPARC chip (Sunrise) built out from gate arrays with Fujitsu.

 

This was an important product in the modern era of computing (198X-201X). 1985-87 was  the beginning of exploitation of Instruction level parallelism (ILP) with RISC implementations from Sun and MIPS. IBM/Power followed later, although it was incubated within IBM earlier than both . The guiding principles being, compilers can do better than humans and can generate code that is optimal and simpler with the  orthogonal instruction set. The raging debate then was “can compilers beat humans in generating code for all cases”?. It was settled with the dawn of the RISC era. This was the  era when C (Fortran, Pascal, ADA were other candidates) became the dominant programming language and compilers were growing leaps and bounds in capabilities. Steve Muchnik led the SPARC compilers, while Fred Chow did with MIPs. Recall the big debates about register windows (Bill even to-date argues about the decision on register windows) and code generation.  In brief it was the introduction of pipelining, orthogonal instruction sets and compilers (in some sense compilers were that era’s version of today’s rage in “machine learning” where machines started to outperform human ability to program and generate optimized code).

There were many categories enabled by Sun and the first SPARC system.

  1. The first chip was implemented in a gate array, which was more cost effective as well as faster TTD (Time to Design). The fabless semiconductor was born out of this gate array model and eventually exploited by many companies. A new category emerged in the semiconductor business.
  2. EDA industry starting with Synopsys and their design compiler were enabled and driven by Sun. Verilog as a language for hardware was formalized. It was an event driven evaluation model. Today’s reactive program is yesterday’s verilog (not really, but making a point here that HDL forever was event driven programming).
  3. Create an open eco-system of (effectively free) licensable architecture. It was followed by Opensource for hardware (OpenSPARC) which was a miserable failure.

The first system was followed by the pizza box (SPARCstation 1) using the Sunrise chip. Series of systems innovations were delivered with associated innovations in SPARC.

  1. 1987 Sun4/260 Sunrise – early RISC (gate array)
  2. 1989 SPARCstation 1 (Sunray) – Custom RISC
  3. 1991 Sun LX  (Tsunami) – First SoC
  4. 1992 SPARCstation 10 (Viking) – Desktop MP
  5. 1992 SPARCserver (Viking) – SMP servers
  6. 1995 UltraSPARC 1, Sunfire (Spitfire) – 64 bit, VIS, desktop to servers
  7. 1998 Starfire (Blackbird), Sparcstation 5 (Sabre) – Big SMP
  8. 2001 Serengeti (UltraSPARC III) – Bigger SMP
  9. 2002 Ultra 5 (Jalapeno) – Low Cost MP
  10. 2005 UltraSPARC T-1 (Niagara) – Chip Multi-threading
  11. 2007 UltraSPARC T-2 – Encryption co-processor
  12. 2011 SPARC T4
  13. 2013 SPARC T5, M5
  14. 2015 SPARC M7 (Tahoe)
  15. 2017 M8…

The systems innovations were driven by both SPARC and Solaris or SunOS back then. There are 2 key punctuations in the innovation and we have entered the third era in computing. The first two was led by Sun and I was lucky to be part of that innovation and be able to shape that as well.

1984-1987 was the dawn of the ILP era, which continued on for the next 15 years until thread level parallelism became the architectural thesis thanks to Java, internet and throughput computing. A few things that Sun did was very smart. That includes

  1. Took  a quick and fast approach to implement chip by adoption of gate arrays. This surprised IBM and perhaps MIPS w.r.t speed of execution. Just 2 engineers (Anant Agrawal and Masood Namjoo) did the integer unit. No Floating point. MIPS was meanwhile designing a custom chip
  2. It was immediately followed by Sunrise a full custom chip done with Cypress (for Integer unit) and TI (for floating point unit). Of all the different RISC chips that were designed around the same era, SPARC along with MIPS stood out (eventually Power).
  3. That was the one two punch enabled by Sun owning the architectural paradigm shift (C/Unix/RISC) as compute stack of then.

Industry’s first Pipelining, super scalar (more than 1 instruction/clock) became the drivers of performance. Sun innovated both at the processor level (with compilers) and system level with symmetric multi-processing with operating system to drive the ‘attack of the killer micros‘. A number of success and failures followed the initial RISC (Sunrise based platform).

  1. Suntan was an ECL sparc chip that was built, but not taken to market for two reasons. [Have an ECL board up in my attic]. The debate of CMOS vs ECL was ending with CMOS rapidly gaining speed-power ratio of ECL and more importantly the ability of Sun to continue with ECL would have drained the company relative to the value of the high end of the market. MIPS carried through and perhaps drained significant capital focus by doing so.
  2. SuperSPARC was the first super scalar process that came out in 1991 working with Xerox, Sun delivered the first glue-less SMP (M-bus and X-bus).
  3. 1995 was a 64 bit CPU  (MIPS beat to market – but was too soon) with integrated VIS ( media SIMD instructions)

After that the next big architectural shift was multi-core and threading. It was executed with mainstream Sparc but accelerated with the acquisition of Afara and its Niagara family of CPUs. If there is a ‘hall of fame’ for computer architects, a shout out goes to Les Kohn who led two key innovations – UltraSPARC (64bit, VIS) and UltraSPARC T-1 (multi-threading). Seeds of that shift was sown in 1998 and family of products exploiting multi-core and threading were brought to market starting in 2002/2003.

1998, in my view is the dawn of the second wave of computing in the modern era (1987-2017) in the industry and again Sun drove this transition. The move to web or cloud centric workloads, the emergence of Java as a programming language for enterprise and web applications enabled the shift to TLP – Thread Level Parallelism. In short, this is classical space-time tradeoff where clock rate had diminishing returns and shift to threading and multi-core began with the workload shift. Here again SPARC was the innovator with multi-core and multi-threading. The results of this shift started showing in systems around 2003  – roughly 15 years after the first introduction of SPARC with Sun 4/260.  In that 15 years, computing power grew by 300+ times and memory capacity grew by 128 times, roughly following Moore’s law.

While the first 15 years was the ILP era and the 2nd 15 years was about multi-core and threading (TLP). What is the third? We are dawning upon that era.  I phrase it as ‘MLP’- memory level parallelism.  Maybe not. But we know a few things now. The new computing era is more ‘data path’ oriented – be it GPU, FPGA or TPU – some form of high compute throughput matched by emerging ML/DL applications. A number of key issues have to be addressed.

 

Computing_trends

Every 30 years, technology, business and people have to re-invent themselves otherwise they stand to whither away. There is a pattern there.

There is a pattern here with SPARC as well. SPARC and SPARC based systems have reached 30 year life and it looks to be at the beginning of the end , while a new generation of processing is emerging.

Where do go from here? Defintely applications and technologies are the drivers. ML/DL is the obvious driver. Technologies range from memory, coherent ‘programable datapath accelerators’, programming models (event driven?), user space resource managers/schedulers and lots more. A few but key meta trends

  • The past 30 years – Hardware (Silicon and Systems) aggregated (for e.g. SMP) the resources while Software disaggregated (VMware). I believe the reverse will be true for the next 30 i.e. disaggregated hardware (e.g. accelerators or memory) but software will aggregate (for e.g. vertical NUMA, heterogenous schedulers).
  • Separation of control flow dominated code vs data path oriented code will happen (early signs with TPUs).

 

data_flow

  • Event driven (for e.g. reactive) programming models will become more prevalent. The ‘serverless’ trend will only accelerate this model as traditional programmers (procedural) have to be retrained to do event driven programming/coding (Hardware folks have been doing for decades).
  • We will build machines that will be hard (not in the sense of complexity – more in the sense of scale) for humans to program.

CMOS, RISC, Unix and C was the mantra in 1980s. Its going to be memory (some form of resistive memory structure) and re–thinking of the stack needs to happen. Unix is also 30+ years old.

Then_v_now

 

Just when you thought Moore’s law is slowing, the amalgamation of these emerging concepts  and ideas in a simple but clever system will rise to the next 30 years of innovations in computing.

Strap yourself for the ride…

 

 

30 (15 and 7) Year Technology Cycles

30_year_img

We all have heard the 7 year itch. Have you ever asked why its 7? Why it is not  10 or 4. Looking back,  I have had those 7 year itches.

Have you had the urge to leave your job or change your role significantly around 15 years? Think about this  very carefully or ask around!! I left my first job after 16 years

What about 30 years. Perhaps time to retire. Or seek a completely new profession?

Now lets look at businesses. Lets review two examples.

  1. Apple: From 1997 to 2007 – it was the Apple IIe.  7 years after founding, 1984 (MAC). 7 years later (1991 – Powerbook).  7 years later (Steve is back with iMAC). 30 years since founding (iPhone). New product, New Business model. Apple re-invented. (http://applemuseum.bott.org/sections/history.html)
  2. Sun: 1982-1989 – Motorola + BSD Unix. 1989-1996 – Solaris and SPARC. 1996-UltraSPARC 1 and Java. 2009 (27 years), acquired by Oracle.  http://devtome.com/doku.php?id=timeline_of_sun_microsystems_history

Why 7? Why 15?  Why 30? The 7 year itch feeds into the 15 year peak which feeds into 30 year retire/re-invention cycle. Since businesses are made of people, especially in the technology sector, business cycles have the same 7, 15 and 30 year cycles.  At 7, one becomes proficient in a domain (10,000+ hours) and change is in the air. At 15, you feel like you reach a peak. At 30 you become obsolete (retire) or re-invent.

At the core of these 30 year transitions, the DNA has to be relevant or one ‘retires’. The biological DNA that define our value proposition, businesses  do as well. Apple has the core DNA of designing eye candy products (materials +  UI). This has transcended to the desktop to the mobile.  IBM has the DNA of general computing business. That has unchanged over decades.  Sun had the DNA of Open-source and open systems. Intel has the core DNA of device engineering and manufacturing (Moore’s law).

The similarity has to do with human productive cycles. While this assertion is not statistically accurate, but there is enough data to suggest why there is a linkage between business cycles and human productivity cycles.

First lets visit some 30 year cycles…In most cases the business model changes – not just technology. Usually the incumbent sees the technology shift and can handle it. But they fail to see or react to the business model change.

Survivors:

  1. IBM: Strangely IBM has revived itself every 30 years. There was mainframe from 1950s to 1980s. Then there was PC and Global Services from 1980s to 2010s. Now its on a re-invention cycle with Watson and Enterprise Cloud. IBM has done this over its 100 year history repeatedly and perhaps the only one. But its facing that issue once more…Time will tell…
  2. Apple: From 1997 to 2007 – it was the Apple IIe.  7 years after founding, 1984 (MAC). 7 years later (1991 – Powerbook).  7 years later (Steve is back with iMAC). 30 years since founding (iPhone). New product, New Business model. But same DNA. 1992 was a critical year as we all know. 2014 is 7 years after the first iPhone. Another change cycle? The smartness with Apple was the move from shrink wrapped software to Appstore. New business model. Fantastic!  The iPhone which is 10 years old will reach its peak the next few years.  Apple will have to have its next big act before 2021 ?
  3. HP: Another survivor has gone through two  30 year cycles and in the middle of the 3rd. Remains to be seen how it will evolve

Recycled

  1. Sun: My Alma mater. Started in 1992 and dies or got gobbled up in 2010. Perhaps lives inside Oracle – not really. Again 28 years and died. Founding DNA = Opensource + Interactivity and big memory. Lost its way when Linux took over (Opensource – around 1998 – 15 year!!!). 
  2. DEC: 1957-1987; VAX9000 remember. That was the beginning of 30 year run. Got gobbled up and could not handle the next business transition
  3. Many other companies fall into this category (SGI…..)
Challenged
  1. Cisco: 1984-2014 (30 years). The networking category is being challenged in a similar way VMware came and altered the server market with Xeon. Commodity switches + SW. Other problems. Good news for Cisco in that it has lots of cash. Needs to find new growth categories that are significant. They are trying with a new CEO and moving upstream.
  2. Intel: Intel got out of the DRAM business in 1984. Now its facing challenges in its core having missed the whole handheld and tablet market. Again another 30 year transition cycle for Intel 
  3. Microsoft: 1997-2007. Windows Vista, Windows 7 Windows 8 – not a growth engine. Missed the phone. Failed to grasp the new business model. With a change in CEO and now the shift to the cloud, albeit late, but seems to have made or making the transition. Its a work-in-progress.
  4. Oracle: The 30 year old database market has run its course. The shift to in-memory and more importantly the shift to the cloud (AWS/Aurora and Google/Spanner) combined with the sedimentation of the plumbing layer (how many database companies are out there). The challenge for Oracle is not technology (which it can by acquiring the next viable business). The shift is in the move of the enterprise from licensed software to the cloud model. 
There is a pattern in this 30 year cycle. Typically a technology and a business model shift occurs and the companies. As you can see very few have done the 30 year transition. If you look deeper there seems to be a 15 year sub cycle and a 7 year sub cycle.
Guess what Google is past the 15 year cycle. Amazon founded in 1994, had its second act starting around 2008 (AWS).
1980s  was the golden era for  many tech companies
–Computing (Intel, Sun, Apple, Dell…)
–Networking (Cisco, 3COM)
–Storage (EMC, Netapp later)
Common Theme: Business model of selling integrated systems (OEM model)
30 years later that model has turned upside down… We are into the the next 30 year cycle with the cloud.
I touched upon this topic in one of the UC Berkely (2014) Aspire retreat(s). An image of a handwritten slide is shown below.  This time like in 1984, when DRAM gave way to logic (Intel), new memory technology will drive the new technology stack and thus new business opportunities. Maybe or atleast hopeful of it. This will be the topic for the next post…
30_Yr_Tech_re_invention
Meanwhile  – what comes after 7 15 30 ?
Coming back to 30 year technology cycles and individuals – is there a link?
Like to hear more about it from others..

Tesla – Chemistry & Intelligence

My 2030 Prediction – Tesla will be valued at $1 Trillion and will be valued for 2 key technologies that will have a significant barrier relative to others. Chemistry and Intelligence (Machine Learning). While Tesla has motors in its logo today and will continue to build motors and cars and other automotive and transportation (electric) vehicles, I see its future has less to do with electric motors or even solar as the key driver of the company core value/IP and thus its business proposition.

At the core of what Elon is building and ‘hard to do’ is battery chemistry and more interestingly is machine learning or intelligence.

Let me start with the simpler one first and the more obvious one – Chemistry.

It’s well known Tesla’s $5B factory in Nevada will be the driver of electric vehicles as we know and Elon as well as Tesla will continue to master the battery chemistry at scale for cars, trucks, home and anything anywhere that needs storage. While there are more efficient forms of energy storage, and the issue of supply of Lithium, cost of battery and efficiency growth of 5-7%/year are issues,  the sheer momentum and size of market with cars and trucks will enable Tesla to have to engineer better batteries (i.e. chemistry)  as it is at the core of value proposition of all electric vehicles. There are a couple of other side effects. First the oil glut will get worse and I expect it to start around 2018 and be in full swing by 2020.  The big shift in the entire value chain of the internal combustion eco-system will start around the same time. We will need fewer gas stations. We will need fewer auto service shops. With Tesla model of Apple style sales going direct, it will have an impact of the overall employment workforce as well.

The second more interesting one is intelligence or machine learning or AI as its called  today.  We are at the Cambrian explosion era for machine intelligence or machine learning. Clearly the autonomous car is the driver for it. What is unique about Elon’s and Tesla’s approach is that the car is the best vehicle to be on the exponential curve of this technology evolution. If you consider the parallels with biological evolution, survival required better audio and later visual perception. The advent of mobility ( one of the inflection points amongst many) of the biological organisms leading to rapid evolution of the visual cortex which holds highest percentage of the brain’s volumetric space. This evolutionary growth while driven by the need for survival was a big trial and error experiment over perhaps a few billion years and out of that sensory path all kinds of decision making processes were developed.

So the assertion here is that Autonomous car is going to drive machine and deep learning tools and techniques more so than any other platform. That will include chips, platform (HW), platform (SW) and more importantly algorithms and decision processes need to meet and perhaps exceed Level 5 standards or approach a human and perhaps exceed.

Tesla has a lead on this over others including Google as they have now >100K vehicles on the road. Iterating on this and soon by 2018 going upto 500K and soon after 1M.  That will be a key inflection point – analogous to the  million eyeballs or developers being key for a platform success in the 1980s or 1990s (windows , mac and solaris were #1, #2 and #3 and all others dropped off), 100M for the web/social era,  the same will hold for autonomous car driving the platform capability for ML/DL.  Now lets contrast Tesla’s approach to Google. Tesla is taking an iterative, real world approach.  Waymo i.e. Google is trying to build the best autonomous system first. We know the latter is harder and likelihood of market success is linked  to multiple factors over time (except for Steve Jobs who knows how to build the perfect platform before he releases one).

So the Tesla approach is solving the hard ML/DL problems using the car as the ‘driver’, while the google approach is taking a platform (ofcourse solving Google’s other applications) approach. What’s interesting is ‘intelligence’ exploded in the biological evolution with mobility linked to survival and thus mobility became a critical ‘driver’. There are many other drivers of ‘intelligence’ but for the near term – this is a key ‘killer’ use case to drive platform evolution with significant business value.

So if we take the evolution of battery chemistry of the next 14 years and the evolution of autonomous system including the level 5 decision making system which is mobile and making real time decisions at speed and criticality of the ‘goods’ it carries, I have to posit that the core value of Tesla in 2030 will the chemistry knowledge of the battery and the ML/DL platform that it will build. Behind the ML/DL platform will be silicon for processing in the car, the data (and energy) storage, the intelligence at the car level, the big data hub or data center that each car will provide and on and on and on…The Android vs iOS analogy applies. One took a platform approach to go to market and the other took a vertical integration approach.

So, while Google will drive the developer adoption of ML/DL, quietly but surely Mr Musk (and thus Tesla) could well emerge as the leader and in delivering the industry leading ML/DL platform. It won’t be restricted to just automobiles or transportation.  Like biological evolution, its a winner takes all game. Homosapiens killed all other forms.  Expect Tesla to drive this platform and that might well be its monetization model.

I thus speculate, It will be in the battery chemistry and the platform intelligence that will be at the core value of Tesla’s drive to a $1 Trillion in valuation by 2030.

Block Device is dead. Long Live the block device

Matias Bjorling  in the paper he co-wrote in 2012 calls for the necessary death of the block device interface in the linux kernel as we know it.    Flash was just emerging as a storage tier in enteprise and infrastructure IO stack back then.

Going back to the era of the creation of block device abstration in Unix (late 1970s – early 1980s), POSIX (IEEE standardization efforts) also published file and directory access APIs that are OS independent.  Around the same time 3.5″ HDD (Circa 1983) came into existence that enabled both the PC and the workstation form factors.  The operating system level abstraction and the IEEE standardization process enabled storage to be segregated as a set of well defined APIs resulting in storage as an industry – which over the past 30 years is more than $50B in size.

30 years later, the flash entered the enterprise or infrastructure segment. Around the same time a number of KV stores have emerged that have tried to map application use cases (NoSQL, databases, messaging to name a few) to flash and used variety of KV abstraction APIs to enhance the integration of Flash in the platform.  Around the same period, we have also seen object stores emerge and the cloud and S3 has emerged to be a default standard effectively as an object store, specifically to users of AWS.

With the emergence of the NVRAM (or 3D xpoint), the reasons outlined in the paper and the rationale are even more obvious. Until recently, I believed that a well defined and designed KV store is the new ‘block device’. While that remains true, without the standardization process, it will never have wide acceptance or become the new ‘block device’.  Similar to late 1970s, there are three things that are forming the storm clouds to posit the new block device. They are

  1. Emergence of 3D Xpoint or SCM as an interim tier between memory and flash which has both memory semantics as well as storage (or persistence) semantics
  2. Emergence of S3 as a dominant API for application programmers to leverage cloud based storage and in general S3 as a dominant API for today’s programmer.
  3. The need for a POSIX like OS independent (today you will call it cloud independent) ‘KV store’ that addresses both the new stack (SCM + Flash) as well as handles latency and throughput attributes that these new media offer that would be otherwise limiting with the old block interface

Its obvious that the new storage API will be some variant of a KV store.

Its obvious that the new storage will be ‘memory centric’ in the sense that it has to comprehend the SCM and Flash Tier as the primary storage tiers and thus adhere to latency and throughput as well as failure mode requirements.

If the new interface is necssarily KV like, why not make  ‘S3 compatible’ interface for the emerging new persistence tier (SCM and Flash).  Standardization is key and why not co-opt the ever popular S3 API?

AWS has a unique opportunity to re-imagine the new memory stack (SCM, flash) and propose a ‘high performance’ S3 compatible API and offer it as the new ‘POSIX’ standard.