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Just because you can build a toaster that runs Linux, it doesn’t mean you should


It’s almost ten years now since Marc Andreessen used the phrase “software is eating the world” and a new meme was born (today it’s probably that you’re the “Uber” of your industry). In the data center nearly two decades later that has now translated into “software-defined” pretty much everything – storage, network and compute.

For a short while there things were great – lot of rack space and processing power, lots of cooling available and KW’s of electricity per rack. Almost anyone could build an appliance out of off-the-shelf components with the right kinds of mechanical “ins and outs” for its purpose, drop a variant of Linux on it and your badge on the front and boom – you were in the hardware business.

Wind the clock forward to today and you can see manifestations of that in both your home and business operations. Your TV, for example, is now really just an Android tablet with a really nice 75” screen. Hell, people have been putting Linux on everything – including toasters for a few years now.

The net effect in the data center has been the implicit assumption that if your solution is “software defined” then the hardware doesn’t matter. In our view, nothing could be further from the truth. 

Today it’s not uncommon to see half filled racks in data centers. Why? Because today’s generic appliances are built using off-the-shelf components that are not optimized for the task that they are performing. Instead “brute force” is effectively used to try and deliver the best results resulting in large, inefficient, power hungry boxes that guzzle up the available power and cooling resources. As data continues to grow and the trend to hybrid cloud sees more and more data repatriated from the public cloud, this is a situation left unchanged that is unsustainable.

The plain truth is, if you build task-specific hardware able to run software-defined open source solutions like Ceph and SONiC you can make very significant and meaningful performance and (in the case of storage in particular) density improvements enabling you to fully utilize available space without topping out power and cooling budgets.

Our HyperDrive Density Storage appliances, for example, enable you to deliver 120TB of storage in a single “u” of rack space with a power budget of less than 125 watts – that’s over 5PB of storage in a 42U rack, delivered for around 5KW of power consumption – well within that delivered in most data center racks – and a potential significant cost saving in co-location environments where consumption impacts rack rates.

It’s not just about power however, it’s also about performance. When you understand the behavior of the task and the way the software is architected to deal with it, you can optimize the hardware to support that. We dig into that some more here, but that’s why we’re able to deliver such blistering performance using open source code.

On top of that, when you design hardware for a specific task, and you know exactly what code you’re going to run, you can dramatically improve the ability to quickly configure, install and operate your environment. All the benefits of a proprietary hardware/software solution, without the huge downside of vendor lock-in. Remember, under the hood it’s open-source, so you can move away from SoftIron any time.

Sure you can run Ceph, SONiC or a raft of other software-defined platforms on generic hardware. Try to run it on a toaster if you like. Our bet though is that, once you’ve experienced the difference task-specific design makes, you won’t.

Curious to learn more about how task-specific hardware can make an impact in your data center? Get in touch here.