Last week I attended the SUN launch of their latest SPARC processor, Niagara. Considering this blog is .NET focused you might all ask what am I doing straying into this territory. The answer is need-to-know. So what did I learn...
Background: when I attended the Information Age luncheon the roundtable discussion on datacenters did not spend a lof of time talking about anything else other than space, power consumption and heat. This is a serious and very relevant issue for the datacenter players - they're realising that demand is not slowing down at all, rather it is increasing rapidly. The technology innovations such as blade servers were, perhaps, very much a short-sighted quick fix to a simpe set of issues with complex ramifications; for example the heat from blade servers is so much that the cost of deployment means extensive cooling and space is necessary. If that is not enough of an issue then perhaps this is - power has to be generated and consumed for both the servers and the cooling of them, this is not a non-issue by any means - I've been tracking the peak oil debate and read an interesting book from a leading geologist on the matter; my conclusion was clear - we, as an industry (US specific report here), will be ever more responsible for our contribution to the demand for more energy and its impact on our environment.
I know that many of us in the industry have a passion for the world we live in, we're open minded, multi-cultural and care deeply about our environment. So when a new technology comes along that can make our impact significantly less I'm all for it!
Niagara is cool, not in trendy terms but in real terms - the team at SUN led by Fred DeSantis have done a superb job with Niagara - this processor and the ensuing family have been designed to significantly cut back on resource demands and heat dissipation. To add to this the processors are exceptionally fast employing multiple cores and threads - they've used R&D from BI solutions as well to optimise the design to complement these processor intensive applications.
If you're running a datacenter this is the bottom line:
With Niagara you get more capacity in terms of processor power and space usage with lower energy bills for both running the servers and cooling them. Unless I'm mistaken it's a no-brainer!? Oh yeah, before I forget - they cost less than the competition. (NB: I asked Fred DeSantis that "if demand outstripped supply would SUN alter their pricing?" - Fred's answer was direct and honest - he'd love to increase the margins but that is not SUN's goal, they're going for growth and we can be assured the pricing will remain the same).
In the first iteration of Niagara there has been a design compromise relating to floating point calculations - this is addressed in Niagara 2 (45nm), ready next quarter, where each core will have its own FP unit, twice as many pipelines and multi-socket capabilities. They're also moving to serialised memory access instead of the current technique of parallel IO which will give 50GB/s read and 40GB/s write - that's big huh!? On the processor are 2 x 10GB ethernet, 1 PCI-e, 25 Cyphers and 64x SMP - that's a lot of fun too!
But the biggest surprise was when Jonathan Schwartz announced they're opening the design up to the community - wonders never cease but what is clear is SUN Microsystems is no longer just pitching great technology, it's pitching responsible computing.
Niagara is not OS-specific - Windows datacenters can benefit as well! Let's hope our friends at Microsoft, who've got the bug for super computing, will optimise Windows OSes for this chipset being as the knowledge to do so is now out in the open.
I've been at odds for sometime as to what I should write about following the rather exciting few months we've had recently. It all began back in August when I asked members of the SalePlane network for a few words about their optimism with regard to their own businesses following my concern at the reality fast approaching the software industry.
Patience has been a wise course of action as all manner of things descended on the software markets and the greater information technology industry. So with all this discussion on the buzz side what's been happening on the ground? Here are a few sound bites of opinion and experiences that might echo what you're facing right now...
"One of the trends we're seeing is the increasing use of new media by non-IT-literate departments of companies such as sales, marketing, PR etc, or at least they seem to have more responsibility for new media projects that would previously have belonged to IT. The result is that we now target our marketing effort at a significantly different sector than before. Often there is no internal development resource so these people are outsourcing all the development and are trying to project manage it....
...There seems to be a belief that 'The Internet is easy' now that it's ubiquitous, but the technical complexity and potential difficulties are the same as ever, and will get even more complex as people expect to access web-based applications via mobile devices." - Steve Green, TestPartners, UK
This shows an emerging trend that Gartner has been looking at with regard to the transformation of IT companies to business process companies dealing with specific business units of the integrated organisation - TestPartners are well on the way to evolving in parallel with the trend as they are already positioned as a service proposition that can fit into program management seamlessly.
From the strategic corporate perspective Robin Talbot, IT Director at Sanlam Financial Services - London, had these words to share:
"this is budget time when I’m looking at what we will be planning for next year within the company and reviewing the projects that are completing successfully this year. Without exception, our business heads within the Group are optimistic and single minded in building their businesses with greater awareness of offering services that are customised to the individuals needs which is impossible to do on scale without tightly focused IT solutions.
Servicing the IT for a company as innovative and high growth as ours, creates interesting dynamics as we ensure that the rock solid foundations that underpin the innovation remain solid as it scales. The coming year sees us continuing to practice good corporate governance as we complete our comprehensive Information Security Program based on best practice from the ISF http://www.securityforum.org and obtaining ISO17799.
We continue to innovate on the way we supply our IT services and 2006 will see us continuing the success in using a blend of internal and external resources to give us the mix of stability, expertise and flexibility which allow us to meet the needs of the business in an environment of faster change. These are just some of the areas at the top of my mind at the moment and although not everything we are doing is on the glamorous side of IT, getting the basics right is fundamentally important for growth"
I think it's fair to highlight here that Robin is seeing the growth in complexity at the basic level of operation which for him needs a well thought out strategy if it is to be able to respond to business change - re-location, expansion and acquisition are common themes yet there is much more to a resilient and high-performing network and that is the knowledge or messaging architecture of the organisation. The optimisation and agility of this level of services in the stack, where two or more entities will converge on a process through messages, provide a key to advanced application development via messaging leading to a theme of the message is the software.
It is a significant tactic to meet many requirements of business change and the evolution of proprietary players like Sonic Software and open source collaborations such as Petals can provide nimble but dramatic advantages to an organisation like Robin's which is embracing agility in the enterprise.
However, the action that has caught my attention more than anything else has been from an all together different source, no pun intended. When SUN decided to open source Solaris, their flagship operating system I immediately paid attention. Since then the announcements have been coming thick and fast with a culmination in the Financial Times reporting about SUN re-inventing itself. It's a strange statement as I'm not sure that SUN is re-inventing itself, instead I believe they're actually playing one of the best chess games we've seen yet in the industry to use an opaque analogy.
SUN Microsystems recently lowered the barrier of participation by offering for free their enterprise development tools Java Studio Enterprise v8 and Java Creator to users happy to sign up to their Sun Developer Network. Bridging 3 common platforms Windows, Solaris and Linux these tools provide an excellent opportunity to enjoy using the tools of professionals while avoiding licensing costs. There are some great collaboration features in JSEv8 as well as further support for UML based development - find out more here. Eclipse is another development environment tool which is open source, gaining ground in the development community and it's worth taking a glance to see whether you might want to work in that environment as well with a variety of plug-ins from PHP to Mono. On the subject of Mono there are some quite nifty tools now such as MonoDevelop and SharpDevelop to assist there.
Yet what does this all mean!? What it means is that many more developers are able to participate using open standards and community projects to evolve sophisticated solutions in an efficient and productive manner. The building blocks of the server projects and the application resources at the source code directories such as FreshMeat and SourceForge provide a rich ground in which developers can participate and experience new ideas with no barrier to entry.
There has been an encouraging upswing in optimism once again in the industry as internet media and ideas gather more attention and eyeballs. Open systems thinking is prevailing and driving opportunity. One of the technologies helping this trend is a new iteration in web human interfaces that has been capturing hearts and minds in the form of Ajax - and it's appearing in quite a few new FOSS offerings such as http://www.zimbra.com. Another space that's been getting some attention has been document management with the arrival of Al Fresco - an open source Java alternative to SharePoint managed by an impressive team.
My optimism comes from witnessing and influencing changes taking place in our industry. As the behemoths jostle for position a clear message converges - one that the great dotcoms Amazon, eBay, Google and Yahoo are all too familiar with - and that is the value and creativity that comes from open systems and giving away power so that developers can enrich and evolve useful services. Enabling any developer to leverage their platforms to create a multitude of diverse offerings has never before been possible in the retail world, sure the concept of franchising has existed for many years but not at zero cost and with such numbers and distribution - this is nothing new although it has so far contained itself to those users who can afford the technology and the bandwidth. Yet in the world of users with a modest budget the time has never been better to be an end-user of a software and more likely a user of software tools. What is helping this drive is that developers have become less concerned about upgrade paths and become more focused on writing the software non-technical people need.
Meanwhile, many people wondered why eBay paid so much for Skype and the analysis of the eBay power of 3 did not sit well with many commentators - it's good to see the recent announcement between Six Apart and Skype as an example of the partnerships now forming in the multimedia space.
Whether you're a developer or a knowledge/information worker the choice of tools available is getting better and better, have you tried FreeMind lately? The cost of upgrade and integration has been greatly reduced because of the proliferation of open systems that share knowledge and open source code which is updated by a community of practice for free for the benefit of the community and it's wider user base, in this community a Darwinian concept is embraced and diversity runs free. This is what SUN sees as well.
When they started with Solaris many observers speculated whether this would continue and many of us have been delighted by the news as SUN continues to open up more and more of its intellectual property and empower the open source development communities. Of course a few spectators have not understood and this is entirely understandable given the FUD those, whose business it is to sell software, are publishing even to the extent of politicising the concept.
Luckily rather than rely on my words for your wisdom Jonathan Schwartz has answered the critics and spelt it out for you and any other business who cares to listen! I have to agree and having conveyed this message already to open source .NET developers at a conference in Italy that the market is no longer product and now services means many businesses who choose to will no longer be locked in, they will have their support team either in or out-sourced who can either rely on their own expertise and/or work with the necessary support contracts knowing they can be responsive and agile, tweak and tune without waiting for the next upgrade of a proprietary vendor's solution (what is known in the industry as vendor-lock-in that also came with a support contract known as maintenance).
Tomorrow I get to see SUN talk chips, really fast chips and I'll update the post with my impressions thereafter. Hopefully it will take my mind off developers, developers, developers - because being a .NET fan I'm sad to say that it's pretty damn tough for Microsoft to compete against this step change and I get the feeling checkmate is round the corner.