Could a Hydrogen Daylight Illuminate Microsoft and Apple?

We, and in particular the media, would love technology to move in grand majestic sweeps.  Instead, the market moves in little lurches and hiccups, and so sometimes you have to read through the obvious to find useful signs of a trend.  Today we have three news items to ponder; Apple’s rumored CDN, Microsoft’s new CEO, and the Hydrogen release of OpenDaylight.  Could Hydrogen fuel some revolutions for the others?  We’ll see.

The Apple story is based on a report by a Wall Street analyst but it has some credibility in a technical sense.  It’s clear that Google is getting more and more into video and Google has built what’s essentially a private Internet core that links its servers to the important access ISPs.  They even have their own cache points inside (in some cases) the ISP edges.  That offers them a better video path to customers.  Amazon, another competitor of Apple in at least the tablet space, also has CDN capability though not as “deep” as Google, and their cloud capabilities are being used to augment their delivery of even web content.

The problem with the story is that building something competitive to Google’s network would tend to drag down Apple financials and not necessarily raise their revenues.  Networking is expensive, and Apple already gets CDN services from Akamai and Level 3, so what they stand to gain is really just the difference between the cost of services and the cost of CDN infrastructure.  Unless, that is, something changes.  One possible change could be settlement on the Internet, created by the end of the neutrality order.  That might force the CDN providers to pay for connectivity, and Apple might believe they have (through their i-stuff) more leverage with the operators.  Another is the cloud.  Apple might in fact be looking to a more point-of-activity experience management future, which would demand lower latency.  We’ll have to see what happens here, but I think CDN is too simplistic a driver.  Apple, I think, needs to be looking more at Siri/”Her” and transformational experiences.

Then there’s Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella, a cloud guy who’s supposed to be the kind of techhie that Microsoft insiders respect.  The buzz is that his cloud experience is going to drag Microsoft into the New Age of the Cloud.  Well, maybe.  The problem here is that it’s about two years too late for any of the obvious moves.

Microsoft had a dazzling cloud opportunity with Azure at first, because “basic” cloud computing is all about offsetting costs.  IaaS offsets only hardware cost, so it’s inherently harder to justify and less profitable.  SaaS potentially offsets a lot of cost, but you need to offer it for every software application or the buyer still needs computers and software and you’ve not made much of a business case.  PaaS is a wonderful in-between, but it could work only if you have a platform that’s almost universal—like the Windows Server stuff.  Microsoft could have hosted everything in that platform, built from that into hosting Office and other tools, and driven the cloud revolution.  But now the cloud is moving on to the platform services space where you add cloud value by adding web-service features.  Microsoft is in fact worse off in that kind of market unless it elects to target any operating system and middleware with its own platform services.  That would be interpreted as a repudiation of Windows.

Nadella has little choice here, cloud-wise.  All he can really do at this point is to try to add platform services to Azure, but do so in a way that makes them accessible to Linux or whatever.  If he does that, he’s immediately eroding the differentiation of Windows and taking a step toward making all operating systems and middleware into commodity elements.  But if he doesn’t do that, then he’s disconnecting Windows decisively from the cloud, and that will ultimately be fatal as platform services develop.  Microsoft, in short, is heading for some very troubled times and no new CEO ever lived that could pull them out quickly.

Finally, we come to OpenDaylight.  SDN is overall a vast ball of market hype surrounding a kernel of utility.  The coverage of everything SDN tends to focus on obvious stuff, and there’s nothing as obvious as a good cat fight among vendors.  So we’ve accused Cisco of trying to use OpenDaylight to control SDN, to have pushed Big Switch out.  We also accused Big Switch of running out in a fit of pique because their own controller wasn’t picked as the basis of OpenDaylight, something that would have given them a great exit strategy.

I have always believed that OpenDaylight is the superior controller.  I think that anyone who believes that OpenFlow alone will let buyers shift into SDN mode is delusional.  What you need for SDN to work is two things.  One, the ability to control the widest range of devices possible through the widest range of behaviors possible.  OpenDaylight was designed to do that, and uniquely so, which is why I think it’s the best approach.  But the other thing is the ability to define a full set of “behaviors”, meaning cooperative models of network forwarding, and impose them on that wonderful range of devices.  There, I fear, nobody in the SDN space is doing much that’s useful.

We started in the basement with SDN, with control of devices and not a sense of what we wanted a controlled collection of devices to do that differentiates it from other collections based on other technologies.  We need to reinvent networking to be sure, for the era of the cloud and hacking and content and so forth, but to do that we have to start by conceptualizing the service goals and from them harness devices in the best way.  Otherwise, low-level evolution may not add up to the best way to support high-level services, which reduces the value of those services and all you’ve done to support them.  In fact, low-level evolution might not add up to any logical services at all.  OpenFlow was a bad place to start, and it’s already IMHO proved to be the wrong way to do device control across the full range of equipment.

Network Functions Virtualization has also started at the bottom, but it may still be able to climb out of the furrows to see what the crop is supposed to be.  The TMF is actually, and decisively, holding the high ground at the moment because service management is half-service even semantically.  The question is whether these two initiatives can grow together or whether one at least will embrace the full notion of services.  If they did, they could create the network foundation for SDN, for cloud and Microsoft, and even for Apple—whether their goal is as pedestrian as CDN or as futuristic as “Her”.

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