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Who will operate the cloud?

A handful of mega-providers would have the sort of market power over their suppliers that probably no single company does today, says CNET Blog Network contributor Gordon Haff.

The headline writers who wrote "Sun Plans To Close Its Data Centers" rather overstates Andy Greenberg's actual story.

In an interview, Sun Microsystems' chief technology officer of information technology, John Dutra, balked at committing to the 2015 goal, and cautioned that Cinque's post was more of a "vision" than a "tactical plan." But Sun's drive to reduce its in-house computing hardware is real. In five years, Dutra says, more efficient servers and virtualization--the conversion of multiple computers into software that can be run on a single machine--will allow Sun to do away with five of its eight data centers, reducing both the centers' square footage and data consumption by around 50%.

That said, Dutra goes on to indicate that Sun does eventually plan to reduce those numbers to zero, renting out the company's processing and storage capabilities from external data centers--albeit, it would appear, at some vague future date.

At first glance, none of this should be particularly surprising. In a widely quoted post in November 2006, Sun CTO Greg Papadopoulos opined:

...That there will be, more or less, five hyperscale, pan-global broadband computing services giants. There will be lots of regional players, of course; mostly, they will exist to meet national needs. That is, the network computing services business will look a lot like the energy business: a half-dozen global giants.

The idea is that these mega-service providers will increasingly deliver most of the world's computing in the form of a service. In other words, they'll be the back-end to "cloud computing" or "The Big Switch" (to use the term from Nick Carr's latest book.) For a company to look to a future in which it doesn't own and operate its own computers is fully consistent with this vision.

However, Sun is not just any company. It makes computer systems. And there is a very real question whether "arms merchant" is necessarily a great role to eye in a cloud computing world.

If there are hundreds or thousands of "software as a service" and "hardware as a service" companies? Sure. That's a situation not much different from today. Some independent software vendor delivering its own software in the form of a service isn't going to get into the hardware and operating system business. The investments are just too large.

However, if one accepts Papadopoulos' vision at face value--that there will be a very small number of providers--the competitive landscape looks much different. Such providers could do much of their own system engineering--as Google, in fact, does today. At the very least, a handful of mega-providers would have the sort of market power over their suppliers that probably no single company does today.

As a result, if any of the large system vendors truly believe that a highly concentrated compute utility is the future, it's unclear why they should be embracing the role of passive arms merchant given how little control they would have over their own destiny in such an environment.