As I See It: Data Center Campground
August 16, 2010 Victor Rozek
Ah, morning in the campground. The tops of evergreens bathed in amber; sunlight filtering through the haze of campfire smoke; crisp, pine-scented air; and the only sounds are the crackle of wood and the sizzle of bacon. Well, not exactly.
It used to be that way, before cruiseship-sized RVs came to dominate the terrain like oversized dinosaurs. You know, those monstrous, four-wheeled condos that turned campgrounds into something resembling Wal-Mart parking lots. Now, instead of rising each morning to a sensory feast, all other sensations are drowned out by the annoying drone of generators.
I was in California this past week, in Lassen Volcanic National Park, one of the more spectacular expressions of geological grandeur. All four types of volcanoes–Shield, Plug Dome, Cinder Cone, and Composite–reside within the park. Here you will find numerous hydrothermal features including boiling mud pots, and roaring fumaroles where steam and sulfurous gases escape from the ground. It’s a place where lazy streams tumble into cascades and froth over waterfalls. Nestled in thick forests, blue lakes shimmer; and at higher elevations, alpine meadows are dotted with purple lupine, red Indian paintbrush, and the enduring green of Mountain hemlock. It is a place where you may find challenge, rejuvenation, serenity and, alas, obnoxious campers.
I was having coffee, swatting mosquitoes, and listening to annoying generator music, when–quite unbidden–thoughts of work pushed their way into my head. Here I was in a geological candy store, watching people come and go with all their gear stuffed to the rafters of vehicles great and small, and it occurred to me that data centers can be explained in terms of stratification and camping styles.
The composition of computing technology, like Lassen itself, is stratified. The top layer (at least in terms of investment) is the rarefied stratum of the mainframe. Among the things that distinguish it from other strata are storage capacities measured in brain-boggling petabytes, and six-figure compute cores. But its unique feature is excess: speed, power, capacity, storage, price–all as extravagant as Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.
Below mainframes resides the stratum of midrange systems. Practical, affordable, with a wide range of uses. Their unique feature is diversity.
Below the midrange is the individualized stratum of the personal computer. Laptops are convenient, easy to use, and portable. Everybody has one. Their unique feature is ubiquity.
And last is the stratum of hand-held devices. Modestly priced, they go anywhere, can be used for work or play, but are limited by the availability of a signal. Their distinguishing feature is their diminutive size.
The first thing that occurred to me is that puffed-up motorhomes are the big iron (or in this case, the big aluminum) of camping. And generators are the backup power supply. Like mainframes, excess is their key feature, and it opens the door to entitlement. Mainframe Guy feels entitled to space and services, and the needs of his steroid-mobile usurp those of more modest campers (just like the requirements of a mainframe computer trump the needs of less significant systems). Thus, one giant Winnebago can shatter every one else’s desire for silence with impunity. Whether in the data center or the campground, expensive toys are privileged.
And when a rolling aluminum warehouse is just not enough, like a good mainframe, it’s scalable. If Mainframe Guy is not satisfied with driving a house, he can tow the contents of his garage as well. And, like a mainframe, it comes with air conditioning. I can’t quite grasp camping with AC. Those two concepts just don’t belong in the same sentence, like Fox and News. What next, a concierge? Nonetheless, at the first sign of heat or, God forbid, a mosquito, Mainframe Guy retreats inside his sanitized fortress, and closes the blinds so that no one can see in and he can’t see out. Most even have a handy satellite dish that can be angled just so. Wouldn’t do to miss American Idol. Nothing like traveling hundreds of miles to do the same thing you did at home every night. It’s nature red in tooth and claw. . . in high def.
Midrange Guy drives a more modest camper, perhaps a truck with a shell. Like midrange systems with limited capacities, there’s not enough room in his camper to fit his entire 12-piece living room set. So, just as midrange employees tend to be more casual than their mainframe colleagues, Midrange Guy adopts a Grapes of Wrath look with bicycles, flotation devices, and aluminum web chairs Velcro-mounted to the back of his wagon.
Midrange Guy enjoys comfort and convenience as much as the next guy, but he’s not willing to shell out mainframe money to get it. And since his rig isn’t very roomy, he actually spends time outdoors. His camper, like a true midrange system, is a tool appropriate to its function. It does not become the function.
PC Guy brings whatever fits in his car or truck. He tosses up a tent, sticks the cooler on the bench and the camp stove on the table and he’s good to go. PC Guy spends most of his time away from camp. He actually does things like, you know, hike and swim.
In general, the amount of time campers actually spend sequestered in their vehicles is directly proportional to the amount of cash they spend on them. The more people spend on comfort, the less likely they are to stray far from it. The greater the investment, the more obliged they are to use it. Just like IT. A PC may sit idle, but a mainframe never does.
Which brings us to the bottom stratum, the world of hand-held devices. Since the name “Hand-Held Guy” presents some uncomfortable visuals, let’s just call him Droid Guy. This is the kid who bikes to the campground with his gear strapped to his wheels. By the time he peddles a few hundred miles uphill, he’s usually exhausted, emaciated, and grateful for a sandwich.
Droid Guy is not burdened by hardware, or expectations. His camping style requires a much smaller investment, but he has to work much harder to see returns. Like the world of IT, if the only thing you have to work with is a hand-held device, the best thing you can hope for is that, at the end of the day, someone will offer you a sandwich. There is a double irony here. On the one hand, today’s Droid Guy has more computing power in his palm than yesterday’s mainframe, from which we can conclude that less is more. But on the other hand, all that computing power produces very little of lasting value, from which we can conclude that more is less.
It’s certainly true in camping. The more elaborate the motor home, the less its inhabitants interact with nature.
Well, the generator stops whining and, for the moment, Mainframe Guy is through using his kitchen appliances. He’s headed for the overstuffed couch in the living room to catch his favorite morning news show.
As for me, I’m heading into the back country, just as far away from mainframes as I can get.