How HP Labs nearly invented the cloud

On the heels of HP’s news of not-quite abandoning the Cloud, there is coverage of how AWS stole a march on Sun’s plans to provide compute-on-demand. The timeline for AWS starts late 2003 when an internal team in Amazon hatched a plan that among other things could offer virtual servers as a retail offering. Sun’s offering involved bare metal and running jobs, not virtual machines.

In a paper published in 2004 a group of researchers at HP Labs proposed what they called “SoftUDC” – a software-based utility data center. The project involved:

  • API access  to virtual resources
  • Virtualization using the Xen Hypervisor
  • Network virtualization using UDP overlays almost identical to VxLAN
  • Virtual Volumes accessible over the network from any virtual machine (like EBS)
  • “Gatekeeper” software in the hypervisor that provides the software and network virtualization
  • Multi-tier networking using subnetting and edge appliances (“VPC”)
  • Automated OS and application upgrades using the “cattle” technique (just replace instead of upgrade).
  • Control at the edge: firewalls, encryption and QoS guarantees provided at the hypervisor

Many of these ideas now seem “obvious”, but remember this was 2004. Many of these ideas were even implemented. For example, VNET is the name of the network virtualization stack / protocol. This was implemented as a driver in Xen dom0 that would take Ethernet frames exiting the hypervisor and encapsulate them in UDP frames.

Does this mean HP could have been the dominant IAAS player instead of AWS if it only had acted on its Labs innovation? Of course not. But, lets say in 2008 when AWS was a clear danger, it could’ve dug a little deeper inside its own technological inventory to produce a viable competitor early on.  Instead we got OpenStack.

Many of AWS’s core components are based on similar concepts: the Xen hypervisor, network virtualization, virtual volumes, security groups, and so on. No doubt they came up with these concepts on their own — more importantly they implemented them and had a strategy for building a business around it.

Who knows what innovations are cooking today in various big companies, only to get discarded as unviable ideas. This can be framed as the Innovator’s Dilemma as well.

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