The Hollowing out of enterprise IT

We had a relatively long discussion yesterday, amongst a bunch of independent analysts and one topic that came up was my thesis that enterprise IT is being hollowed out by two forces pulling in opposite directions on their apps. Those forces are the cloud and the edge.

Western part of the abandoned Packard Automotive Plant in Detroit, Michigan. by Albert Duce

Cloud sirens

The siren call of the cloud for business units, developers and modern apps has been present for a long time now. And their call is more omnipresent than Odysseus ever had to deal with.

The cloud’s allure is primarily low cost-instant infrastructure that just works, a software solution/tool box that’s overflowing, with locations close to most major metropolitan areas, and the extreme ease of starting up.

If your app ever hopes to scale to meet customer demand, where else can you go. If your data can literally come in from anywhere, it usually lands on the cloud. And if you have need for modern solutions, tools, frameworks or just about anything the software world can create, there’s nowhere else with more of this than the cloud.

Pre-cloud, all those apps would have run in the enterprise or wouldn’t have run at all. And all that data would have been funneled back into the enterprise.

Not today, the cloud has it all, its siren call is getting louder everyday, ever ready to satisfy every IT desire anyone could possibly have, except for the edge.

The Edge, last bastion for onsite infrastructure

The edge sort of emerged over the last decade or so kind of in stealth mode. Yes there were always pockets of edge, with unique compute or storage needs. For example, video surveillance has been around forever but the real acceleration of edge deployments started over the last decade or so as compute and storage prices came down drastically.

These days, the data being generated is stagering and compute requirements that go along with all that data are all over the place, from a few ARMv/RISC V cores to a server farm.

For instance, CERN’s LHC creates a PB of data every second of operation (see IEEE Spectrum article, ML shaking up particle physics too). But they don’t store all that. So they use extensive compute (and ML) to try to only store interesting events.

Seismic ships roam the seas taking images of underground structures, generating gobs of data, some of which is processed on ship and the rest elsewhere. A friend of mine creates RPi enabled devices that measure tank liquid levels deployed in the field.

More recently, smart cars are like a data center on tires, rolling across roads around the world generating more data than you want can even imagine. 5G towers are data centers ontop of buildings, in farmland, and in cell towers doting the highways of today. All off the beaten path, and all places where no data center has ever gone before.

In olden days there would have been much less processing done at the edge and more in an enterprise data center. But nowadays, with the advent of relatively cheap computing and storage, data can be pre-processed, compressed, tagged all done at the edge, and then sent elsewhere for further processing (mostly done in the cloud of course).

IT Vendors at the crossroads

And what does the hollowing out of the enterprise data centers mean for IT server and storage vendors, mostly danger lies ahead. Enterprise IT hardware spend will stop growing, if it hasn’t already, and over time, shrink dramatically. It may be hard to see this today, but it’s only a matter of time.

Certainly, all these vendors can become more cloud like, on prem, offering compute and storage as a service, with various payment options to make it easier to consume. And for storage vendors, they can take advantage of their installed base by providing software versions of their systems running in the cloud that allows for easier migration and onboarding to the cloud. The server vendors have no such option. I see all the above as more of a defensive, delaying or holding action.

This is not to say the enterprise data centers will go away. Just like, mainframe and tape before them, on prem data centers will exist forever, but will be relegated to smaller and smaller, niche markets, that won’t grow anymore. But, only as long as vendor(s) continue to upgrade technology AND there’s profit to be made.

It’s just that that astronomical growth, that’s been happening ever since the middle of last century, happen in enterprise hardware anymore.

Long term life for enterprise vendors will be hard(er)

Over the long haul, some server vendors may be able to pivot to the edge. But the diversity of compute hardware there will make it difficult to generate enough volumes to make a decent profit there. However, it’s not to say that there will be 0 profits there, just less. So, when I see a Dell or HPE server, under the hood of my next smart car or inside the guts of my next drone, then and only then, will I see a path forward (or sustained revenue growth) for these guys.

For enterprise storage vendors, their future prospects look bleak in comparison. Despite the data generation and growth at the edge, I don’t see much of a role for them there. The enterprise class feature and functionality, they have spent the decades creating and nurturing aren’t valued as much in the cloud nor are they presently needed in the edge. Maybe I’m missing something here, but I just don’t see a long term play for them in the cloud or edge.

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For the record, all this is conjecture on my part. But I have always believed that if you follow where new apps are being created, there you will find a market ready to explode. And where the apps are no longer being created, there you will see a market in the throws of a slow death.

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