Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Dawn of the CPU/hr

At breakfast with Jonathan Schwarz yesterday he was talking about Sun's recent launch of a true utility - a grid computer available to all. His pitch is essentially that computing should become a service like water, electricity or gas: one that you can turn on or turn off at will. The missing piece is that for something to become a true utility there needs to be transparent pricing, i.e. a clear and indisputable metric in units that are standard to everyone. With electricity, this was KW/h - and the move to utility led to ubiquity. The comparison between KW/h and CPU/h isn't seem straightforward - "CPU" after all is a moving target. Sun have helpfully defined what they mean though - a 2.4Ghz opteron (and there are accompanying stats on disk storage etc) - along with issuing a none-too-subtle challenge to IBM. Unlike electricity, you should get progressively more for less as time goes on - the folks who manage the grid perform upgrades and, hopefully, the price falls as the cost of computing is driven down by ubiqity and accompanying widespread use. I haven't notice my electricity bill go down recently but, as Jonathan says, the first person to have his house fully wired was JP Morgan and he needed full time staff to manage the generator; since then, bills have certainly come down. Whenever I looked at the task manager application on my PC I was always amused to see it registering mostly 95% idle (when I worked on VAX systems, I saw that rather than say "idle" they used "System tasks" in case any senior management happened to look at it and wonder why they were paying such huge bills I guess). So in terms of CPU/h, I am paying through the nose for 'CPU' and getting very little 'hour'. And, if I'm paying through the nose, then any corporate or public sector entity is getting nosebleeds unless they're running intensive activities all the time (oil exploration surveys come to mind) or they're running on out of date hardware and really sweating their assets. We're all used to paying for computing as "capital cost" though - we buy a laptop or a desktop for £1000, £2000 or £3000 - and then we manage it operationally (for perhaps £1,000-£3,000 a head from what I hear). Over 3-5 years of depreciation that's a lot of money for probably relatively few truly productive CPU hours. We probably don't even know how many or how much they cost. What Sun have offered here is a benchmark - a pure number that allows direct comparison with our own costs. I don't think anyone has tried that before. We don't know, of course, whether that's Sun's true cost of service provision (with appropriate margins built in etc) or whether it's a loss leader (their accounts a few quarters down will perhaps tell that story). But we do have a number that anyone can compare to their own data. The problem, I think, is that few will have the data to really determine the cost in CPU/h terms. To start, maybe it will be enough to sum the cost of the data centre and divide by the number of hours in a year. That, for most people, will be more than $1. And, if like every system I've ever seen, you're mostly idle, then all of a sudden it starts to look like $10, $100 or $1000 an hour. Or maybe more? Then come all the objections, all of the comparisons, the dependencies, the issues and restrictions. It will be something like "we couldn't move our data to Sun's place because of confidentiality" or because of "security" or "data protection" or "we don't run their software stack" or whatever. I think that's the beauty of Sun's move though - they're provoking a debate and some folks will take on that challenge and run the numbers and see if there's maybe a way that they can make use of Sun. Others will run the numbers and look for ways to cut their own costs and get more efficient. And others still will ignore it because they don't really want to know what their own costs are and how far away they are from true utility computing. If I could hook a truly dumb terminal up to their grid and run my own basic computing needs against it (I really don't need a grid but I'll take it if it's there) with ubiquitous wireless connectivity, I think my computing bill would be $10 a year or less. I wonder if there's a model there for the folks who don't have PCs yet, who don't quite know why they need one - a fully subscription based system with minimal hardware, practically zero management and a simple monthly fee (after all, it works for satellite TV). You turn your terminal on and you start paying for it - just like water, electricity and gas. I'm sure that Jonathan is not yet ready to get into the consumer market with this - he wants weather forecasting or seismic surveys or something - but maybe once it's proven there is a model with the right partner to do that. I don't think Sun will succeed at making this a profitable business, but I do give them credit for trying. And I'd love to see a debate provoked around what the true costs are for others.


  1. Anonymous8:58 pm

    Easy to say, hard to do - being a utility.

    Let's not forget that utilities; gas, electricity & dialtone are "always on".

    Providing this level of 99.9xxx% availability is the problem for sunHeads to consider.

    I'll go to a dumb terminal if the "grid" doesn't suffer the usual outages for upgrades, peak overload,
    virus hits etc. Pigs will fly first

    It's a solution begging a problem. The world wants super equipped cars/pcs/cameras/dvds/ etc...

    The less is more grid approach is green and noble, but boys do love their toys, so sod the greenhouse effect give me Hertz and Ram please.

  2. Almost always on. Most utilities show an average downtime of over an hour per year per customer. Better than most websites for sure, but surely if you added up the amount of time you spend fiddling with your PC to make it work - installing gagdets, reinstalling, re-booting etc - then the downtime is, in reality, much worse than figures would show. I know, for certain, that if a consumer dumb terminal becomes available then I will subscribe for my mother, my aunt and many others in my family who don't have the time or the expertise to make PCs work. Pigs fly? Maybe, but I don't think the world quite wants what you say - at least, not the 80% of the world who don't have PCs yet.

  3. Anonymous1:01 pm

    Yes, it would be attractive perhaps to the tech-have-nots who will use a thin dumb terminal maybe. Although the interface would have to be as easy as tuning into Eastenders for your mum who doesn't want to see a unix prompt? (Amstrad mail phone never really took off.)

    Do users really factor in and consider their outages, their downtime, or just the suppliers downtime, ie: If I can't log on tonight to book that ticket, I'll blame SunGrid everytime.

    Would the "tech-haves" give it up and go dumb terminal, logically it makes sense, it just seems unlikely they would. Thin/NC/Citrix/etc.. have not set the market alight.

    For Sun to provide a near-non stop grid nationwide over the entire infrastructure and then market it in an understandable doesn't seem to be the Sun I know. Perhaps they would have to partner with a mass market business like Walmart to stand a chance?

    Give a person a fish and you feed them for a day; teach that person to use the Internet and they won't bother you for weeks.

  4. funny, i hear the amstrad mail phone is selling pretty well. i saw the stock price chart in the paper the other day and amstrad looks to be properly back from the dead.

    as you say, will the tech have nots make the switch? my guess is that the right partner is BT or Sky, not walmart. principally because both of them sell subscription services to consumers already and have enormous market reach (presumably 20 million homes for bt and at least 8 million for sky). enhancements to sky interactive through broadband would make sense i think.

    every idea has its time, this one has had several goes. with a push towards sustainable computing, getting towards the kyoto limits and a need for corporates to reduce it spend (replacing PCs with browser based apps) maybe now is really the time. or maybe it will fall at the early hurdles - which are just as you say they are. ram and hertz still drives a lot of people, although i'd just like something that works all the time, like you

  5. Dave (IS Strategy at UU)1:57 pm

    I guess we are all waiting for the savings and flexibility that true utility computing will bring. In the meantime better utilisation of GHz can be achieved by the use of true Dumb Terminals (we use 1000's of Wyse terminals) and load balancing (e.g. consolidating onto Enterprise Servers and balancing workload domains to achieve high levels of CPU utilisation).

    The move away from CPU charging (e.g MIPS or TPMC) has reduced the focus on efficient CPU and Storage utilisation, however SUNs drive to highlight the issues is likely to refocus the industry.

  6. So was it the move away from MIPS etc or was it that the cost of PCs/Servers/etc started to fall through the floor and people were happy to pay up. Times were good. Maybe times are not so good now and people need to squeeze more so they're back to the consolidate/ rationalise/ squeeze suppliers/get more bang for the buck strategy?