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.

 

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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.