Data Center Players Face a Growing Storm

Last lines from The Terminator

Sarah Connor: What did he just say?

Gas Station Attendant: He said there’s a storm coming in.

Sarah Connor: [sighs] I know.

There’s one problem with clouds: they’re usually precursors to storms. That’s not always a bad thing. If you need rain and like thunder—then rock on! However, if you’re in the business of selling water and drought is your friend, then perhaps you’re not storm-chaser material.

Why is this relevant? Well, a storm’s approaching the long-entrenched players in the data center space. How bad the storm is yet to be determined; nonetheless, it will have positive ramifications for some and quite a few negative ones for others. But let’s take a quick walk down memory lane first.

In the beginning there was the PC—and it was good, as long as it had a floppy drive, a 10Megabyte hard disk, and an insane amount of memory (like 640kb or so). Within this context, the demi-gods of yesterday (Compaq, Dell, Chameleon, Basis, Corona, and so on) battled for supremacy, leaving us with an oligarchy of OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) delivering server hardware and various bits of ‘server value’—which in turn optimized margins for said demi-gods. Such Pantheons are subject to change (hopefully for the better) every now and then—and the advent of the cloud may have provided the opportunity for such a change.

If you’ve ever taken an IT data center tour, usually one of the highlights (at least to a geek like me) is the dizzying array of blinking lights alongside revered names like Dell, HP and IBM, all neatly aligned in rows of whirring monoliths. But let’s ask a question: who takes tours of cloud data centers hosted by Amazon, Google and Microsoft? Answer: no one but a hallowed few.

Most data centers are built around published specs, which protect jobs and help ensure the success of a newly deployed data center. But what if the high priests of the cloud—Amazon, VMware, Microsoft, and Google—decided to publish the specs for their respective cloud data centers? What sort of equipment are they buying? (An endorsement of a particular brand would be more than enough for your average data center architect to pull the trigger on a certain deal, especially if the price is right.)

In the quest for the holy grail of cheap prices and stable margins, you could also head over to China and discover an OEM land of milk and honey—namely, spec’d server hardware ordered (literally) off a Chinese Menu of options. Cheaper, functional, scalable… and the only thing missing is a label slapped on the side at the end of the manufacturing process.

You would find out these Chinese manufacturers are more than happy to sell direct to large customers in addition to OEMs. Thus a new force emerges, setting the context and stage for where we are today: if cloud data centers have no onus to any OEM, then those long-entrenched players face a potentially deadly storm.

Heck, clouds like Google’s are comprised of special servers and don’t need a label. Amazon just needs to keep the show running, as does Microsoft’s Azure. Since no one ever sees a cloud data center, uptime and cost is key. Would it be any surprise if it turned out that entities like Microsoft are only buying new servers from our Taiwanese friends?

If you were building (or refreshing) a cloud data center from scratch, wouldn’t you consider buying custom equipment from an overseas vendor, rather than an industry giant whose specs might not meet your needs? That’s the storm ready to hit the OEMs; whether they adjust to keep dry and happy, or dissolve in the deluge, is largely up to them.

Image: Guy J. Sagi/Shutterstock.com

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