The Big Switch: The network becomes the data center

The Big Switch: The network becomes the data center

Summary: Nick Carr, the Paul Revere of utility computing, blogged about HP reducing its data centers from over 80 to 6 and Sun's effort to shut down all its internal data centers by 2013. To achieve even greater efficiency will require a higher level of consolidation - across companies rather than within them - and that can only happen through a shift to shared, web-based infrastructure.


Nick Carr, the Paul Revere of utility computing, blogged about HP reducing its data centers from over 80 to 6 and Sun's effort to shut down all its internal data centers by 2013.

To achieve even greater efficiency will require a higher level of consolidation - across companies rather than within them - and that can only happen through a shift to shared, web-based infrastructure. The network, to spin the old Sun slogan, becomes the data center.

Brian Cinque of Sun explains the why Sun is taking the utility computing path:

  • Reduced IT costs thanks to a major reduction in data center space, power, and cooling requirements.
  • Reduced IT costs and decreased time to implement projects thanks to a reduction in operations complexity for the data center staff.
  • Compliance with Data Center audit finding.
  • A foundation for sourcing components.
  • A transition to an “evolutionary change” infrastructure management style.
  • Alignment with application, security, business systems, and agent architectures.

He then outlines how Sun will reach its goal in the next five years:

  • There is an ample amount of technologies available to SunIT that will allow us to consolidate systems, storage, applications, etc.
  • Server Virtualization – Xen/xVM, Solaris Zones/LDOMS
  • Storage Consolidation – Tiered storage, NAS, etc
  • Application Consolidation – For SunIT its called IBIS
  • WAN acceleration – Another interesting technology in which its roots have been around for a while.
  • SaaS - Another blog but SaaS plays a huge role. SaaS and mashups are an interesting discussion

These revelations by HP and Sun provide more evidence to support the thesis of Nick's new book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the world, from Edison to Google. In his previous book, Does IT Matter?, Nick argued that IT can't necessarily provide competitive advantage, given every company has access to it. The book created a storm of debate and ire, especially among vendors who didn't like the devaluation of IT.

The Big Switch and Does IT Matter? both treat IT is an essential and commoditized service, like electricity, that needs to be looked at in economic terms. The switch to software-as-a-service and utility (or grid) computing will have as profound an effect on society and businesses as cheap electricity did in the last century, Nick posits, although it will take a decade or two for corporations to wean themselves off of their existing systems.

He places the current movement toward utility computing, the Big Switch, in historical context:

An awestruck Henry Adams spent two weeks exploring the treasures of the Columbian Exposition, but he was most deeply affected by seeing a display of electric dynamos - two 800-kilowatt General Electric machines, the largest available at the time, and a dozen of the latest Westinghouse generators.

He recalled the experience in his biography The Education of Henry Adams. “One lingered long among the dynamos,” he wrote, “for they were new, and they gave to history a new phase.” Sensing that such machines “would result in infinite costless energy within a generation,” Adams knew that they would reshape the country and the world. He felt humbled by the dynamos, but their power also troubled him. What history’s “new phase” would bring, he realized, lay beyond our understanding and even our control: “Chicago asked in 1893 for the first time the question whether the American people knew where they were driving.

He concludes that we are heading into a new era:

In the years ahead, more and more of the information-processing tasks that we rely on, at home and at work, will be handled by big data centers located out on the Internet. The nature and economics of computing will change as dramatically as the nature and economics of mechanical power changed with the rise of electric utilities in the early years of the last century. The consequences for society - for the way we live, work, learn, communicate, entertain ourselves, and even think - promise to be equally profound. If the electric dynamo was the machine that fashioned twentieth century society - that made us who we are - the information dynamo is the machine that will fashion the new society of the twenty-first century.

Nick is talking about the computing infrastructure that will power the planet--always on connectivity affordable to everyone.

Sun CTO Greg Papadopoulos describes the move to the Big Switch the “neutron star collapse of datacenters.” With utility computing, “brutal efficiency” for utilization, power, security, service levels and idea-to-deploy time can be delivered, he said.

In an interview last year, Papadopoulos has said that the earth’s compute resources will resolve into about “five hyperscale, pan-global broadband computing services giants,” and gave examples of Google, eBay,, Microsoft, Yahoo,, and the “great computer” of China.

Source: Sun

More interesting and critical than the formulation of grid infrastructure is what emerges culturally, socially and economically from a super-high speed connected planet enabled by the Big Switch. Nick believes that wealth will be consolidated into the hands of a few companies, a concentration of power that could have negative implications. Given the changes we have seen in the first decade of the public Internet, the next few decades will bring accelerated disruption and innovation impacting all facets of our lives.

See also: Forbes interview with Nick Carr



Topics: Networking, CXO, Cloud, Data Centers, Emerging Tech, Hardware, Oracle, Storage

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  • Sounds like McNealy's Big Friggin Webtone Switch 2.0

    Sounds like McNealy's Big Friggin Webtone Switch 2.0. Only this time, there won't even be ANY servers. It will be in the magical cloud. The network is the computer, who needs computers. Right?
    • Reading is not one of your strong points?

      The idea that Sun is pushing (you may not agree with it) is that we are going to a service based system (everything is on-line). What cuts down on the number of servers is vertualization (the article refers to Xen and Solaris domains, though not by name) which is helped along by multicore processors and SMP systems with a VM running on top of that allowing severeal hosts to be consolidated into one physical host (along with the network infrastructure to communicate between the virtualized hosts). This reduces the physical footprint of the datacenter.

      At the consumer/client end, they will be using computers that come in the form of laptops, smarthones (iPhone, Nokia devices, Erikkson devices, Windows Mobile devices, etc.) and other electronics that most people have in the northern hemisphere (and even in less affluent countries).

      This is not complicated stuff, just an evolutionary path (or a vision of some). You just need to read without over reacting when you don't understand what is being proposed.
      • Actually, Sun has been saying they're going to ZERO servers

        Actually, Sun has been saying they're going to ZERO servers. That's what they've been promoting.
        • Not sure where you are getting that from.

          Several of the companies named (and even found in the illustration in the article) use servers (back end infrastructure for this network) including (of which I personally installed several of the servers in the data centers) and Google, which has several data centers, as does eBay,, Yahoo, etc. Did you miss that part (they even put them in the illustration)? Is this an other case of George Ou making stuff up again or can you point to specifics to back up what you are claiming?
          • Links to "zero data centers by 2015"


            Sun's Brian Cinque:
            "Did I just say 0 data centers? Yes! Our goal is to reduce our entire data center presence by 2015,"

            So he says there will be ZERO data centers.
          • Pehaps you should actually read what you link to?

            To quote [url=]Sun's Goal: No In-House Data Centers[/url]:

            [i]"Did I just say 0 data centers? Yes! Our goal is to reduce our entire data center presence by 2015," writes Brian, who says the goal will be to reduce data center square footage by 50 percent by 2013, followed by a two-year process of shifting Sun's IT operations to a software as a service (SaaS) model.[/i]

            [i]"By 2013, SunIT will still have data centers but we will have consolidated our IT infrastructure on Sun technologies and other vendor solutions," Brian writes. "We will also partner with outhosting solutions which can also be called SaaS. As we progress to 2015, where the application is and how it is designed is no longer a driving factor."[/i]

            [i]In his blog, Cinque expressed confidence that SunIT could use virtualization and consolidation to reduce its data center footprint and energy use by 50 percent by 2013.[/i]

            For those that are unfamiliar, this has a server hosting several virtual servers, using SAN or NAS storage, etc. I also set these things up!

            [i]Cinque said Project Blackbox, Sun's portable "data center in a box," will play a role in the data center consolidation.[/i]

            These are container boxes with data centers built inside them. One can be seen on Sun's Menlo Park Campus.

            [i]The evolution and performance of SaaS platforms will also be critical to the timing of any shift of IT operations to "the cloud."

            "We will need to get to a point in which we mandate detailed SLAs and manage/monitor those SLAs," Cinque writes. "As long as a SaaS provider can adhere to our detailed SLAs, then it shouldn't matter where the applications sit. The challenge is getting those detailed SLAs written out, (and) having the SaaS industry evolve where they can accept client-driven SLA's."[/i]

            Yet more that you should have read in what you quoted. I would recommend that when you argue these sort of things, try to do enough research to speak with actual knowledge (as you may have to deal with people who actually do this for a living, or even worked with several of the mentioned companies including Sun, Google,, etc.). Basically, he is writing about SaaS (Software as a Service), where the servers are not internal but rather owned by someone else (like SalesForce or Microsoft or Google or...).
          • I'm well aware of the technology, I did it for a living too

            What I object to is the exaggeration. The constant pitch of ZERO SERVERS. I know it's not in the fine print, but people in general don't read the fine print.
  • The Big Question?
  • Only five big players in the future?

    Great...further consolidation and empowerment of oligarpical corporations. Just what the world needs. Wouldn't price and efficency also be well served by trimming CEO pay increases? Or how about more competition instead of less. Econ 101 right? Is it a good thing that five, or whatever the magic number is, corps would rule the earth's elecronic infrastructure? Are there civil liberty issues here? Or will that term become "legacy" as the new century progresses? Is our need for "economies of scale" greater then freedom from data shadowing? Don't worry Google and Yahoo, I trust you with all my data. You too NSA. Oh yeah, I especially trust that "great computer" in China. I hope all of IBM and Sun's most sensitive data will lie on PRC computers in the future. Efficiency would be gained there by not even having to bother with a prototype before the Chinese copy and produce it :)

    Ahh the visionaries...I hope Papadopoulos is wrong, but I have to say it looks like he is painting a likely vision of the future. Sad.
    • This just is NEVER going to happen.

      Most companies simply aren't going to trust anyone else with their data. It will put them under someone else's thumb. Once your data goes elsewhere, the data center has you under their thumb. Plus your broadband provider has you under their thumb. Any company will be wholly sorry once they make such a stupid decision.
  • Big difference

    Raw electricity provided by the grid doesn't carry information.
  • Seems to be a lot of trust running around.

    I don't believe it. Given all the data leaks over the last decade, how can you responsibily put any critical information on a server you don't control?

    This introduces an order of magnitude more vulnerabilities to corporate data:


    The data link between your accounting department and the servers in Lower Goatsbreath, North Dakota. Sure, your local switch could go down too, but now you are depending on not just yours, but a chain leading eslewehre.

    The server in LG,ND is hacked. It's a much more tempting target: One system with access to thousands of corporate clients, instead of a single client. Suppose instead of being vandals, they just lightly stir the data in a way that is fairly consistent. (Swap the part numbers, swap accounting entries.)

    The single giant center is destroyed by those ubiquitous terrorists. The fortune 1000 stops dead in it's tracks.

    No, this is a bad idea. Call me a luddite. Call me paranoid. I'm not in favour of putting any critical part of your infra-structure in other people's hands.
    someone else's hands. Outsource only when you must.
  • Some Problems with the Theory

    Unlike a neutron star, the collapse of data centers is not self-sustaining. The problem is that all the low-hanging fruit will be pruned first. That is actually a problem because unless the companies think long term -- really long term, then consolidation down the road will take some serious levels of planning and coordination, thus $$$ costs which will make further consolidation a shell game.

    Meanwhile, businesses will come and go, technology will advance, and AI machines will plan the optimal virtual confiigurations. But, in the long run, who knows?
  • RE: The Big Switch: The network becomes the data center

    "...the earth???s compute resources will resolve into about ???five hyperscale, pan-global broadband computing services giants,???

    ugh. No. I'd say it's likely there will be movement in this direction for some time, but it will not reach this conclusion. Far too many people and organisations stand in the way of that, thank goodness.