What Intel Can Teach Google About the Cloud

structure_speaker_seriesToday’s telecoms, networking vendors, and cloud providers can learn a few things from the past by studying how Intel (s intc) and AMD (s amd) responded when their processors evolved so quickly that they couldn’t get data off of them fast enough. Cloud vendors facing a similar problem on a larger scale are discovering that WAN optimization, a form of Application Delivery Networking, will be required for clouds to be efficient and usable.

In the late ’90s, Sun Microsystems (s java) coined the term, “The network is the computer.”  Although ahead of its time, the company was right — if you take into account today’s relative abundance of bandwidth and the emergence of huge cloud computing operators, the entire Internet starts to look like one big computer.

Rewind the TiVo about 15 years. Intel and AMD were following Moore’s law, doubling performance every 18 months. Even though processors were getting faster, it was getting hard to move data on and off of them. In microprocessor architecture, the system bus is responsible for getting data into and out of the processor. At the time, the aging ISA system bus couldn’t grow in performance as quickly as processors did. In other words, there was a bottleneck that prevented consumers from making full use of the increasingly fast processors.

It’s not a stretch to picture a cloud compute-enabled data center as a giant processor plugged into a giant system bus — the Internet, which varies dramatically in capacity. Cloud computing providers today laugh at Moore’s law because they don’t wait 18 months to double capacity. If they want to (only) double capacity, they simply double the number of servers in the cloud. Oh, and by the way, they still get the benefit of faster processors developed over time.

But these cloud compute providers, liberated from the shackles of Moore’s law, can’t grow network speeds as quickly as they can add servers, creating exactly the same problem that CPU vendors faced when their CPUs grew faster than the system bus. It’s getting worse, too — according to the lesser-known Nielsen’s Law, Internet bandwidth grows at an annual rate of 50 percent, compared with compute capacity, which grows at 60 percent, meaning that over a 10-year time period, computer power grows 100X, but bandwidth grows at 57X. Ouch.

DaveAspreySo what did Intel and AMD do when faced with the same problem? They looked for a fix they could apply quickly.  The quick fix was to add a cache to the processor, which allowed the CPU to run at full speed and store results in temporary memory until they could move across the slower system bus. It also allowed them to keep selling faster processors while they tackled the longer-term project of improving standards for bus speeds.

Cloud computing vendors need to take the same approach. It will take a long time to increase the speed of the “system bus” — every hop on the Internet between a data center and an end user — so they need to start working on shorter-term solutions. The most obvious one is WAN optimization. When cloud compute providers roll out ADN equipment as a part of their offerings, cloud consumers will instantly see much faster access to cloud compute resources using less bandwidth, which will increase cloud usage and unlock the value of the cloud for real enterprise computing. (Full disclosure: I work for Blue Coat Systems, the market leader in the ADN space.)

The future of cloud networking, and the only way to enable the full value of cloud compute cycles, is in WAN optimization. It’s a strategy that has worked well for Intel and AMD — and it ought to work for Amazon (s amzn) EC2, Microsoft (s msft) Azure, Rackspace (s rax) Mosso, and even Google (s goog).

If the cloud vendors try to skip the WAN optimization piece, the potent combination of Moore’s law and expanding data center deployments will hopelessly outpace our ability to deploy (and pay for) new broadband infrastructure.

Dave Asprey has focused his career on finding better ways to use data centers, virtualization, cloud computing, and networking. When he’s not busy as VP of Technology and Corporate Development for Blue Coat Systems, you’ll find him at an anti-aging conference.