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Hardware is eating software, The Cambrian explosion of infrastructure

“Hardware is eating software”, that’s the wonderfully contrarian line that one of my colleagues has been using in his sessions at our annual HPE and Partner pre sales event, TSS, for a few years now. This flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that software is making IT infrastructure into a commodity and that any hardware innovation will be doomed to irrelevance behind the {deity} of cheap tin.

I love this because its observable and has in many ways rekindled my love for the industry I work in. We were starting to slip into a rather staid and boring “Dual Processor 2U server with latest CPU please” arena; even the excitingly different scale up systems of the past had been slain in the minds of the scale it out (and innovate by shaving some metal off) brigade. This was all getting a little dull for someone who went from Chemistry and into IT because he was tweaking and overclocking old Pentium PCs to play Quake, buying new motherboards and being stunned by 3DFX cards (it worked out in the end Mum!).


Exhibit 1 – GLQuake - This was 1990’s accelerator sorcery…..30+ fps at 640x480… (vintage3d.org)Exhibit 1 – GLQuake - This was 1990’s accelerator sorcery…..30+ fps at 640x480… (vintage3d.org)

The truth is that in many ways the software that was running on general purpose x86 hardware was fine for back office tasks and leveraged those yearly update cycles of more MHz to go that bit faster for the task at hand.  Things have changed significantly however, driven by the data analytics and AI explosion and thus the worm has turned. Just as back in the 90’s where CPU technologies, such as MMX, were immediately eclipsed by 3D accelerators in the eyes of gamers; so today is the era of general purpose CPUs and server designs being eclipsed in favour of task optimised systems.

I’m sure we are all familiar by now with the rise of the GPU into the realms of HPC and then AI to perform tasks that were simply impossible on CPUs, but even they are finding competition in different types off accelerator designed specifically for some of the tasks GPUs have been dominating…..GPUs are, ironically, also quite generalised themselves in terms of compute.  Should you then wish to go further down the rabbit hole and approach full cross-eyed wonderment…the GPU vendors themselves are now implementing specific purpose accelerators inside their more general purpose devices (i.e. NVDIA TPU) as they aren’t taking this lying down, oh no sir. Then of course you have Intel now back in the high end GPU game, AMD back in the server CPU game, Intel and AMD in the custom chip game, Google and Microsoft in their own chips game, Intel integrating FPGAs and a ton of start-ups looking to be the next best biggest hit in town.

What this all comes down to is a Cambrian Explosion of hardware designed for virtually every use case software could have come up with and, critically, the ability to implement it in an economically viable manner due to an open ecosystem.

Exhibit 2 – The Cambrian Explosion, biological style (John Sibbick/Natural History Museum)Exhibit 2 – The Cambrian Explosion, biological style (John Sibbick/Natural History Museum)

This makes my original analogy of gaming accelerators look positively anaemic and back then there were a lot more players in that game (queue wistful music)…3DFX, Matrox, PowerVR, ATI, 3DLabs, NVIDIA and many others.

Looking purely at the “not a homogenous 2xCPU with some RAM server” technologies that HPE is supporting from our partners or developing publicly today then, and this isn’t exhaustive, we have:

Memory Driven Computing

Memory Driven Computing: Dealing with Today’s exponentially-increasing Data

HPE Labs Memory Driven Computing, Photonics and Gen-Z

Superdome Flex for Memory Driven Today

Accelerators for Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Neuromorphic Computing

AMD, Intel, NEC, Myriad X and NVIDIA Accelerators

Function optimised systems

High Performance Computing and AI systems

Edgeline Systems for IOT and the IT Edge

HPE Moonshot Systems

HPE to acquire supercomputing leader, Cray

Compose to task systems

HPE Synergy

That is some list and even the good old mainstay 2U DL38x server is back to interesting again, Intel CPU with AMD GPU, AMD CPU with NVIDIA GPU, perhaps an AMD CPU with and Intel GPU in the future? Right components for the right outcome is the key message here.

What I don’t think we’ll see from this Technology Cambrian explosion is just one successful progenitor, unlike us vertebrates.  Flexibility of manufacturing and difference of purpose will mean we’ll see ever more variety going forwards and not taper back to a do it all ok x86 system plan. Take another look at the biological Cambrian Explosion picture above and just wonder how (even) stranger life could have been if some of those body types had evolved onwards, we could be walking 10 legged “dogs” or have six arms (would be useful at airport security…).

PS - Don’t worry software devotees, you don’t need to get as incensed as the cloud faithful did when we announced “Cloudless”. Software will be ever more important in ensuring easy utilisation of these bespoke hardware devices, from management to orchestration to platform interaction. I’ll look to cover these in a follow on to this blog, once I’ve finished on the Xbox of course….

Alex Haddock
Hewlett Packard Enterprise


About the Author


I span HPE HybridIT solutions with a strong background in Compute and Composable infrastructure. Focus on partnering.

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