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June 21, 2006 - by grassonthefield
Start with a few white box PCs built from spare parts, add a distribution of Linux, sprinkle in some great search technology, wave of the hand and capital and voila: you have a data-center down by the river. Look at the scale of it! It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine each of these football-sized behemoths as a single “chip” on the surface of a worldwide motherboard. The processor is increasingly complex software (more and more transistors, more and more cycles, more and more heat). Who can approach?
Behold: the age of gods come to an end. Hurrah for the age of the gargantuan. Leviathan strides the hemispheres communing with Persephone and Juggernaught. Leviathan taunts the master of that age when Men believed in the gods. “Come down from your mountain! Show yourself. Do as I do!” Zeus is injured, and Leviathan knows it. Zeus ruled when Men looked to Zeus for example and succor and strength. Now Men turn from Zeus and look to Leviathan for example. Men ask themselves: “How can we withstand Leviathan? Let us imitate him.” So they bow down in worship, though the age of gods is long past.
I was a classicist in college (Attic Greek). I know that “utopia” means, literally, “no where”. I am not interested in utopia. Here I am interested in drawing a parallel between the mythology of the gods and the mythology of technology. I am interested in how the stories of the gods shape our culture just as the stories of Unix have shaped our technology. Yes, there were gods before the well-formed mythological systems, and there were operating systems before Unix, but they tended to have features less attractive than the Belvedere Apollo.
[A fertility goddess]
And if there is an Apollo in the world of technology, it is Sun Microsystems. Beautiful Apollo. Apollo was one of the most worshiped of gods during that previous time when Men worshiped deities in the high places. But who has heard of Apollo now?…or Sun? Leviathan is about “mashup” (a strange oxymoron) when no single thing is “up”, but all things are “mashed” down together into an indeterminate soup of commonality. Not that real estate listings on a map aren’t great. But in my world of technology as mythology, I prefer Apollo riding across the sky giving light to all Men. I’m just saying. And this isn’t about “openness”.
It’s about a trick. Any Web 2.0 company (here Web 2.0 means “founded since the summer of 2004”), wants to follow the path of Leviathan. Develop on a white box with Linux. This beacon of wisdom even has a handy acronym: LAMP. Develop on some spare parts with Linux, throw the product out for approbation or cold silence. If approbation, move up to a managed hosting service, attend some BarCons, capture the addressable technorati, get more users, and the first bandwidth bill, find some cash…somewhere. Maybe a deal with Leviathan himself: sell ads. Maybe cash comes from Men. But cash is needed because more white boxes and more Linux is needed and the expensive things that tie it all together are needed. And power. Leviathan consumes tremendous amounts of power, and so do his acolytes. But do any of us really have the where-with-all to contend with Leviathan? We want to be Leviathan, so we turn to Vulcan.
Dell is Vulcan. Vulcan sits far beneath the earth crafting the copies of Leviathan’s trade: the white box. Server after server: Vulcan supplies them. And they consume tremendous amounts of power. Vulcan fought with Apollo once, and won. Dell supplies lots of servers at deep discounts that are running Windows, a multitude of Linux variants, xBSDs. Joyent used Dell. But Dell proves to be an illusion. Imagine buying an expensive Mercedes only to spend $5000 a month on gasoline. Imagine buying 100 expensive Mercedes and having to send back 10 because they just don’t work. Imagine how many more metaphors I can squeeze into this blog post.
Who else? There is Poseidon. Poseidon is Hewlett Packard. Poseidon once thought to rival even Zeus, so great was his sway. But as everyone knows, Poseidon is underwater. HPUX. Itanium. Ink anyone?
Have you heard the ditty about IBM?
“Once powerful Man:
Qin Shi Huangdi…,”
Apollo has been hard at work. And it’s not a trick. The results are very impressive. I wish Sun would be a bit more Darth Vader with what its got and a lot less pony tail at times. I say this very appreciative of the pony tail.
This is a wide open company. Sun engineers use the publicly accessible OpenSolaris mailing lists to talk to each other about, well, OpenSolaris. Everything is being open-sourced. Everything is being open-accessed. From the operating system to grid management to, we’ve been told, Java, to the processors from Sun. Is this the move of a desperate god? Or that the god has become incarnate among men?
Do you want a mature operating system that understands how to behave on a multi-core architecture? Is this interesting to you? Do you want to imitate Leviathan or transcend him? Apollo transcends. Do you want a filesystem, ZFS, that allows you to roll your own NAS for 50 cents a gigabyte rather than the 7 dollars the storage vendors will charge? Leviathan has that, did you know? So does Sun. Do you want an operating system that is highly observable? Is your response to performance and availability to buy more wares from Vulcan instead of really understanding why your web application is bogging down? Dtrace. From Sun. Want an operating system that allows you to finely manage the parts of your web application stack and put pieces of the stack on different resource schedules? From Sun.
Oh, and hardware? The new(ish) Sun Niagra servers are practically the size of a 17 inch laptop and much more interesting. They provide 4-5 times the compute power of a comparable Dell server and use far less power. And heat? It’s getting cold in here. If you’re getting excited about the possibilities when it comes to processor density, get excited.
Maybe Apollo has made a deal with Leviathan. Maybe that data-center down by the river will be filled with Sun hardware and operating systems using ZFS. Maybe the hundreds of PhDs working at Leviathan have been redirected to write the first great presentation software for the web, with ads. Or GargantuanSpace? Maybe not.
But if you don’t have a data-center down by the river, or access to one, (and this is the new computer), you risk being cut off.
What’s interesting is Apollo has his own data-center down by the river: the Sun Grid. It’s available for use. Yes, we don’t understand what $1 per CPU hour means in the context of a dedicated server from Rackspace, but we need to learn, quickly. This is the future. And the Sun Grid is open, has been for a year. The Sun Grid is a beginning. It needs more polish. It needs mass storage. It needs better tools for us Web 2.0 developers. But it offers an alternative, if done right, to the white box. Scale can be massive on a grid, but it can also be very small. It offers an alternative to Leviathan and what Zeus might do to imitate him.
This post may read like a suck up. But its not. It’s a wake up. Joyent was asleep. We were imitating Leviathan. Try rebooting a FreeBSD server with 20 terabytes of attached storage after a crash. And servers do crash. FSCK you.
So we woke up. Joyent has begun to use Sun technologies in a number of ways. We’ve been aggressively replacing our Dell hardware running FreeBSD and Ubuntu with a combination of Sun Opteron and UltraSparc servers running OpenSolaris. We will ultimately be able to consolidate 8 racks into 2 racks. Or, seen another way, we will be able to scale back up to 8 racks with much more compute power, much more utility for our customers. And we’re looking at the Sun Grid.
The Nevada build of OpenSolaris is what we’re running our business on. Combined with new Joyent software, we’ve been able to develop some exciting new products we’ll be introducing later this summer because we’ve outsourced our Leviathan ambitions to Apollo. We are but a man standing on the shoulders of a god.
There’s still the Sun sales process that needs some attention. I still wish Sun would sell direct. We don’t buy hundreds of servers at a time. We buy them in handfuls, not truckfuls. It doesn’t feel right to interact with an open Sun only to be handed off to a VAR when it comes time to buy. I’m sure there are many components of Sun’s channel I don’t understand: but that’s the closed-source model. These issues should be worked through, just as Sun worked through the IP issues involved with bringing Solaris to OpenSolaris.
And there’s something we’ve learned about Sun prices, especially for the products we’re using. There’s very little discount. We’ve been conditioned by the mythology of the white box and the wares of Vulcan to expect that a $10K server will be sold to us with deep discounts. But this is the discount of a drug dealer. It doesn’t last. It’s inconsistent. Sun’s pricing is consistent, it turns out. And when considered in light of the power and performance gains, the economics are tremendous.
Since much of this has been tongue in cheek, I will finish with a song by the Barney children. If you haven’t seen the Barney show, set your Tivos to stun. The Barney children are earnest, like many of us in Web 2.0. We want to change the world, just like the children want to eat a healthy snack of broccoli. And they do, they really do. We’re fascinated, like the children, with the possibilities. But Barney always reminds them of the precedents.
Those of us at Joyent are telling you to listen to Barney’s disciples. But we know you won’t listen. We kinda hope you won’t.