Virtualization, Cloud, Infrastructure and all that stuff in-between

My ramblings on the stuff that holds it all together

The Computing Super-Powers are Aligning Their Stacks


I noted with interest the rumours today of Cisco ceasing a long-standing partner arrangement with HP (more here); essentially locking HP out of special pricing and insider product information and roadmaps.

For a long-time HP have offered Cisco components for their c-class blade chassis like the 3020 catalyst blade switch; to infrastructure people like myself this offered the best of both breeds (compute and networking) in a nicely integrated blade solution.

With HP’s recent acquisition on 3Com and their existing HP ProCurve range I would hazard a guess that they will stop selling Cisco blade switches in future – I also note from an email that all HP partners got this week that all Cisco manufactured blade switch components were facing supply issues, stoking the fires somewhat to resellers to push the HP product with some choice anti-Cisco FUD which I won’t repeat here.

image Integrated is the key point for me, if you are building infrastructure solutions you want something that has been thoroughly tested together, even if bits come from different manufacturers and follow “industry standards” you can’t beat a pre-packaged solution with proven support processes and management toolsets.

To my mind this is why Apple have always been so much more successful in the consumer space than Microsoft have; aspiration brand arguments aside, Apple have always maintained a tight grip on the end-end quality of components that go into their products (software, firmware, hardware, accessories) whereas Microsoft were born out of the opposite*;

*let’s leave aside Microsoft’s later leverage and downright abuse of closed and proprietary formats and API’s to wield their market share weight – that’s a whole different argument..

Microsoft took the x86 PC out of the grip of it’s one-vendor supplier and inventor (IBM) in the 80’s and allowed it’s software to run on a wide variety of compatible, commodity hardware, providing API’s for thousands of independent software and accessory vendors to integrate their products with DOS and latterly the Windows OS.

Contrary to what many think (Apple included) Microsoft opened up the PC market to the masses by enabling competition – allowing the consumer to choose from devices that varied in quality and thus cost to match the needs and budget of the end-user – whilst Apple maintained a steady line of expensive/premium but excellent quality products.

In the longer-term Microsoft’s image suffered as a result of this “openness” because there was less (or no) quality control of what 3rd parties produced poor quality drivers, applications and hardware entered widespread use, and all that integration often ended up in a poor end-user experience; how many times have you been frustrated trying to get product X to work on PC Y with software from Z – you are relying on 3 different vendors, each with it’s own target market and user to all do their jobs properly, and to the standards they are given to work with (Win32 API etc.)

If you are a hardware company selling an optical mouse it’s a tight margin high-volume business so you don’t have a lot to spend on quality control or good coders – you want it “done” and shipped and get the profits in – or you may just be a fly by night company that wants to rip off consumers and make a quick buck, there is nothing really stopping you.

Microsoft took steps in recent years to address the poor-quality 3rd party stuff from tarnishing the mother OS’s image through the Windows Certified logo scheme, but they never took it as far as Apple; who refuse any code that is not blessed by their own quality control on devices like the iPhone – and look how it gets almost universal praise for it’s ease of use and reliability.

The ever increasing amount of crap-ware that PCs ship with is astounding – my new HP laptop ships with about 20 different 3rd party drivers and tools out of the HP box, Hawei 3G card, AuthenTec fingerprint scanner, ATI video card with it’s own software To boot, it would seem HP weren’t too diligent about their quality control either.

Now compare that to a MacBook Pro out of the box. Apple own the end-end process – you can only (legally) run THEIR OS X on it, sure they use things like Broadcom NICs and ATI video cards but because they control the OS as well as the underlying hardware they can ensure support is baked-in when it comes out of the box, as a result their test matricies are much simpler and the end-result is a much simpler and reliable end-user experience, they also reduce the bells and whistles to what people want (how many corporate IT departments really take advantage of the smartcard or biometrics support on modern PC hardware or the SD card readers, more often than not time is spent to disable such bells and whistles in the interest of support and not overwhelming end-users).

So, after that rather lengthy into back to my point – if you want something that is good quality and just works as a vendor you need a greater control of the whole “stack” – reduce the variance of components that make up each slice of the stack and the result is;

Simpler/smaller test matrix

Quicker time to market (less variance to test)

Simpler to support – less variance

Better scale of economies

smaller supplier portfolio to manage

There seems to be a fair bit of consolidation in the market place at the moment with the bigger players announcing grand partnerships or simply making massive acquisitions.

Maybe some of the open market, where you could run Linux, Microsoft or something else on your XYZ server is being replaced with a premium/preferred “stack” from a consortium of big-name vendors.

With all the talk of cloud computing this stack has gone well beyond the desktop, office or even corporate datacentre – You can buy the stack from a vendor consortium to run on-premise and offload some your infrastructure into their IaaS/PaaS/SaaS stack – with the promise of a more joined-up approach to support and services.

In the current landscape Microsoft are in an odd position; Ballmer is pushing them all the way into the cloud stack but at the lower levels they essentially have an open partner model, I would expect to see Microsoft partner with Dell (or even acquire, as has been rumoured for a while) to come up with a “premium”/integrated product line-up; but not entirely stop their traditional OEM arrangements with other hardware vendors.

Cisco would seem to have fired the first shot in this war at HP, maybe the gloves of co-operation will come off for the rest now that people don’t necessarily have to be seen to be playing nicely in the market.

The following table shows my take on the major players and the offerings they have; I’m a realist and a lot of these are recent acquisitions or products so I don’t honestly think in all cases they really do have fully integrated end-end sales, services and support but it looks to be the goal.


5 responses to “The Computing Super-Powers are Aligning Their Stacks

  1. Jeremy Arnold February 19, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    Good article. Not going to comment on the HP / Cisco partnership, as I work for HP.

    One thing I want to note here..

    I disagree with your comment that Apple have been so much more successful in the consumer space than Microsoft. You’ve seen market share figures for laptops, and Microsoft have over 90% market share (last figures I can quickly find Oct 2009) .. They are not shabby figures. I suppose you could argue that Apple has been growing faster year on year than there competition. True.

    One thing that Apple have in common with Cisco is marketing. They both charge too much for there product, and as such have a lot more $$ to spend on marketing. Its not called the Cisco Markonaut for nothing.

    They also lock there own customers in to buying there own products, by using proprietary feature sets. Why would any end user want want to suffer that?? In the long run, it can only be a bad thing to be locked into just ONE vendor.

  2. Michael Poore February 19, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out and what the stacks look like in 6 – 12 months time. Hopefully the net result will not be support withdrawn by one vendor for another’s products that are in a different stack. That is definitely a worst case scenario. What is perhaps more likely is that some products will not work optimally with products in another stack and that will be a shame if it happens. Good article.

  3. vinf February 19, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Jeremy, thanks for your comment – apologies if I didn’t put the point correctly but I was trying to convey that Apple were more sucessful than MS in terms of consumer experience/satisfaction rather than market share.

    I agree locking into a single vendor solution isn’t maybe the best for the end-user in the long-term as it gives the vendor scope to abuse their pricing and position(see: IBM Mainframe, Microsoft etc,), but it does deliver an improved experience (and potentially lower capex/opex) on a sanctioned stack. – which is more important in the corporate world considering infrastructure is likley to be refreshed every 3-5 years?

    Moving between vendors is easier the lower down the stack you go (storage/compute/etc.) and virtualization makes this even easier, – no real reasons you couldn’t move onto someone else’s infrastructure stack after that period is up

    Further up the stack into the PaaS/SaaS space this is a major re-implementation excercise – this could be the real area of vendor lock-in rather than the infrastructure

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