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The blogged wandering of Robert W. Anderson

Moratorium on a metaphor?

Yesterday Dan and I discussed a pet peeve of mine: compute cycles being likened to electricity. This comes up nearly every time someone talks or blogs about utility computing.  The catalyst this time was Nicholas Carr and his piece, Is the Server Industry Doomed?  While he doesn’t even mention electricity here, it doesn’t take much to get us back on this topic.  BTW, I agree that much of IT is heading toward utility computing; . . . but, the electricity metaphor doesn’t hold up because the cycles are not electricity. 

I told Dan I might blog on this topic, but he beat me to it in this post: Because 1.21 gigaflops just aren’t 1.21 gigawatts (and then has apparently continued arguing with Mr. Carr since then).  Even better than me having to write a thing! As Dan says:

Partly, it’s just physics. All electrons look alike (let’s not get into electron spin here: as far as my appliances are concerned, every electron looks the same). It doesn’t matter to me if the power that’s lighting up my life, running my refrigerator, and powering my PC came from a wind farm, a hydroelectric plant, or a diesel turbine. Well, for environmental reasons, I might prefer the former two, but the point is that when an electron gets to me, I can’t tell where it came from.

Computes just aren’t the same. Computes look different on different operating systems. Not all software runs on all operating systems. Different people prefer different toolsets, and they always will. Some OSs are better for some things than others, and people choose the appropriate OSs for them. Yes, we’ve all read about “write once, run everywhere” software–but a small minority of software actually runs that way. OSs are different, and they will continue to be different. People will continue to write software that takes advantage of particular OSs.

But, that wasn’t really my point either.

Lets allow that utility computing is the centralized generator (analogous to electric utilities), but what is being generated?  Certainly not compute cycles.  The generator burns compute cycles (and electricity and data) to produce . . . data.

So, is the commodity the data?  Of course not.  Data are almost always proprietary.  Is moving the data the commodity?  Bandwidth is a commodity, but it only scarcely resembles  electricity transmission and distribution.

So, the commodity in utility computing is the compute cycle, but utility computing doesn’t resemble an electric utility.  The metaphor just doesn’t make sense.  I guess people like it because there was a time when electricity generation moved from a local to a centralized model. 

How about a moratorium on the electric utility metaphor?  Utility computing doesn’t need a metaphor to make sense.

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    J. LeRoy wrote @ March 4th, 2006 at 10:37 am


Recently Robert Anderson and David Anderson (who are not directly related) both posted about metaphors that made them angry. Robert’s angry about computing cycles | electricity. David was tweaked about home building | agile methodologies. (Hair splitt…

    J Martin wrote @ May 7th, 2006 at 8:06 am

Is electricity truly a commodity?. Just to provide you with my energy blog address to add more views to that issue
J Martin

    Robert W. Anderson wrote @ May 7th, 2006 at 8:59 am

Thanks, J Martin. You make some good points about whether electricity is a commodity. So maybe the metaphor is even worse than Dan and I state.

    Bert Armijo wrote @ June 21st, 2006 at 12:06 am

This is an old post, but since a lot of folks get hung up on this analogy I’ll go ahead and reply.

In the case of electricity, power is generated in a central station, placed on the grid and made availible in your home and office. If you want a breeze, you plug in a fan, it consumes the electricity and produces your desired result.

Now imagine a compute utility, a grid of servers in a data center. You’d like to run an application run that makes images availible on the web. You copy your application to the utility, where it runs, consuming CPU cycles and RAM. As a result your images are availible on the web just as you wanted.

The only difference is that the consumption actually happens where the commodity is generated rather than in your home or office, but that’s of little consequence.

IMHO what’s held back utility computing is that until recently it wasn’t possible to “copy an application” to the utility unless it was a simple single server app. Anything more complex was really reintegrating the app. That’s been conquered, and now it’s possible to move full-blown distributed apps between data centers in minutes.

I won’t pretend to know what utility computing will look like in five years, but I and a lot of others are betting a lot of time and money that you’ll be using it.

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