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IT's hardware evolution in this software-defined age

There may be a software-defined revolution going on, but the hardware evolution continues. Learn why hardware retains its importance in networking today, even in this SDN age.

Take a look at IT-related technology news lately, and it's impossible to escape the cloud. From software as a service,...

to platform as a service, to infrastructure as a service, and all other as-a-service offerings, modern computing and services seem to depend on virtualized everything. This includes compute, storage, networking and even graphics capabilities nowadays.

There's definitely a software revolution going on, but the hardware evolution continues still. Some may see the SDN age as the triumph of software over hardware, but that's overstating the case. Even in the cloud, software must run on some kind of hardware platform. In the ongoing hardware evolution, it is true that hardware is becoming increasingly modularized and commoditized. Still, it remains absolutely necessary and essential to delivering -- and consuming -- data and services in our mobile and widely dispersed work environments.

Open compute progress

The Open Compute Project (OCP) serves as a terrific illustration of where the hardware evolution is headed. This organization publishes designs for data center products and represents standard computing architectures for the likes of Facebook, Intel, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Rackspace, Cisco, Lenovo and many others. Components of this project include the following elements:

  • Server computer nodes in various forms that include Intel, AMD, and ARM processors;
  • Open Vault storage building blocks with high disk densities for storage (30 drives in a 2U Open Rack chassis);
  • Mechanical mounting systems standardized to maximize component density and improve air flow, measured in a standard unit format called OpenU;
  • A variety of in-progress designs for an open network switch, with commodity implementation from Facebook and Google competing against high-end proprietary products from well-known networking vendors.

To give you an idea of the kind of traction that OCP has garnered, even Hewlett Packard Enterprise offers OCP products to its customers, as does Taiwanese hardware giant Quanta Computer Inc. (which builds components and platforms for Apple, Dell, HP, Amazon, Cisco, Fujitsu, Lenovo and other big computing industry players), Penguin Computing, Racklive and Stack Velocity.

Paramaters of the hardware evolution

Going forward, I have to believe that hardware will remain important for all kinds of computing uses. But I also believe that we're entering an age of interchangeable modules for compute, storage, network functions, graphics and so forth. Service providers are turning into a primary audience for this kind of gear -- access, services, processing and data -- which they turn around and sell to the world at large. What they want, and what they will increasingly get, is modeled superbly in the OCP initiative: basic building blocks from which to put together large-scale data centers and points-of-presence upon which to stage and deploy the astounding variety of services and capabilities that such platforms support.

Other important aspects of where hardware is going show up clearly in the hardware evolution when it comes to modern CPUs: an increased emphasis on flexibility and energy efficiency. Just as modern CPUs can turn on and off various sections of their architectures to respond to processing needs, while minimizing energy consumption, modular hardware components in the OCP mold will be designed to do likewise.

Overall, the impact should be more affordable and more ubiquitous processing and services of all kinds.

Next Steps

Learn more about the role of hardware in the Open Compute Project

Get expert advice on keeping hardware up to date

Read our guide on how to buy an Ethernet switch

This was last published in May 2016

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