Commodity hardware debate heats up again

Gold Nanowire Array by lacomj (cc) (from Flickr)
Gold Nanowire Array by lacomj (cc) (from Flickr)

A post by Chris M. Evans, in his The Storage Architect blog (Intel inside storage arrays) re-invigorated the discussion we had last year on commodity hardware always loses.

But buried in the comments was one from Michael Hay (HDS) which pointed to another blog post by Andrew Huang in his bunnie’s blog (Why the best days of open hardware are ahead) where he has an almost brillant discussion on how Moore’s law will eventually peter out (~5nm) and as such, will take much longer to double transistor density.  At that time, hardware customization (by small companies/startups) will once again, come to the forefront in new technology development.

Custom hardware, here now and the foreseeable future

Although it would be hard to argue against Andrew’s point nevertheless, I firmly believe there is still plenty of opportunity today to customize hardware that brings true value to the market.   The fact is that Moore’s law doesn’t mean that hardware customization cannot still be worthwhile.

Hitachi’s VSP (see Hitachi’s VSP vs. VMAX) is a fine example of the use of both custom ASICs, FPGAs (I believe) and standard off the shelf hardware.   HP’s 3PAR  is another example,  they couldn’t have their speedy mesh architecture without custom hardware.

But will anyone be around that can do custom chip design?

Nigel Poulton commented on Chris’s post that with custom hardware seemingly going away, the infrastructure, training and people will no longer be around to support any re-invigorated custom hardware movement.

I disagree.  Intel, IBM, Samsung, and many others large companies still maintain an active electronics engineering team/chip design capability, any of which are capable of creating state of the art ASICs.  These capabilities are what make Moore’s law a reality and will not go away over the long run (the next 20-30 years).

The fact that these competencies are locked up in very large organizations doesn’t mean it cannot be used by small companies/startups as well.  It probably does mean that these wherewithal may cost more. But the market place will deal with that in the long run, that is if the need continues to exist.

But do we still need custom hardware?

Custom hardware creates capabilities that magnify Moore’s law processing capabilities to do things that standard, off the shelf hardware cannot.  The main problem with Moore’s law from a custom hardware perspective is it takes functionality that once took custom hardware yesterday (or 18 months ago) and makes it available on off the shelf components with custom software today.

This dynamic just means that custom hardware needs to keep moving, providing ever more user benefits and functionality to remain viable.  When custom hardware cannot provide any real benefit over standard off the shelf components – that’s when it will die.

Andrew talks about the time it takes to develop custom ASICs and the fact that by the time you have one ready, a new standard chip has come out which doubles processor capabilities. Yes custom ASICs take time to develop, but FPGAs can be created and deployed in much less time. FPGA’s, like custom ASICs, also take advantage of Moore’s law with increased transistor density every 18 months. Yes, FPGAs  may be run slower than custom ASICs, but what it lacks in processing power, it makes up in time to market.

Custom hardware has a bright future as far as I can see.