Earlier this week, Intel discussed its plans to forever change the data center as we know it.
Intel, a core technology maker, is now aggressively moving from servers into networking and storage and partnering with segment leaders such as Cisco Systems and EMC along the way. This could make the near future rather interesting.
Think RAID, But With Cheap Processors
For a while, I was convinced that Intel wouldn't catch this wave. Years ago, Microsoft began an initiative to rethink the data center as kind of a modular server. Applying a RAID-like concept to low-cost processors stood at the center of this effort. Replacing the "D" in RAID with a "P" would give any CMO a heart attack, so the concept never got a catchy name—but, on paper, it was poised to reduce computing costs dramatically.
Intel didn't like that Microsoft was using Atom processors for this and asked Microsoft to stop, assuming the folks in Redmond would switch to Core or, even better, Xeon. Microsoft, thinking Intel missed the "inexpensive" part of the concept, instead moved to ARM. Rather than prevent a move to a lower-margin product, Intel effectively promoted a move to a product that gave it no margins.
Intel, to its credit, eventually came around and has been working furiously to create a high-efficiency platform based on Atom. Companies such as Facebook are flocking to it; they say it provides the best capacity, lowest operating costs and highest efficiency for Internet service loads. (Internet services are still the fastest-growing opportunity for this class of device.)
Intel now reports that it leads the industry in performance per watt and optimization, which has let it get the most design wins and broadest software support—though on this last point, it certainly helps that x86 still dominates low-end, high-volume servers. That's a pretty impressive turnaround.
Rather Than Beat Intel, Cisco Joins 'Em
I first became aware of Intel's efforts to reduce networking costs, meanwhile, at an Intel Labs event years ago that showcased a technology called "Data Bricks." This was designed to cut the cost of large-scale routers, and I thought it would put Cisco out of business. Cisco was apparently smarter than I was. Instead of ignoring or fighting Intel, the companies partnered—and Cisco may be a big beneficiary of this switch, rather than a casualty.
Intel now says its solution leads the industry in performance per watt per dollar, cost-effective network security and, since Intel tends to use a modular approach, on-demand scalability. These are all critical parts of a network technology competitive review, and they place Intel at the center of a market where it wasn't even a player before.
Is It a Server or Is It Storage? It Doesn't Matter
If you'd asked me a decade about Intel and enterprise storage, I'd have said that market was too far removed from what Intel does. Technology is very customized and proprietary, customers are conservative and the segment doesn't move quickly enough to make sense for Intel.
Then Intel partnered with EMC. Suddenly, Intel is a player and EMC is moving ahead of its competitors—to the point that it's getting harder and harder to tell the difference between some servers and some storage systems.
Pat Gelsinger, the former Intel CTO, who was once in line to run that company and is now in line to run EMC, said as much a few months ago. Gelsinger, who's always ranked among the most forward-looking technology executives, expects future systems to dynamically switch functions, so much so that servers and storage systems may only differ by what they do, not what they are.
Intel appears to be on track to help make this possible and demonstrated this week that systems using its technology can provide the highest capacity and accessibility, coupled with the lowest access latency and GB per dollar cost. That impressed me, given that Intel wasn't even a player in this market a decade ago.
Intel to Create the Data Center of Tomorrow
We've entered a period of rapid change for all technology types. Server, networking and storage technology have typically improved on different cadences, with the latter two demonstrating change far more slowly.
With Intel's heavy involvement, and with much of the core technology now common, networking and storage won't lag any more. The cadence for advancement across the three segments will be aligned—not to mention far faster. We'll likely see collective benefits where the total is greater than the sum of the parts, too, with updated systems built on Intel technology forming integrated platforms across all three areas over the next five years.
CIO 100 Winner Profile: Intel (2012)
This suggests that, if you aren't a fan of change, then IT may not be where you want to be. But if you like saving money, and you don't mind some disruption, then knowing how to apply these changes could help you rise through the ranks in your organization as a strategic asset.
In any case, hang on to your seats. Intel plans to destroy the legacy data center and replace it with something amazing.
Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.