Past is Prologue: What 1990s Technology Tells us about Today’s Cloud Competitive Landscape

Last week, Amazon launched Zocalo, an enterprise file sync and share service. The press chatter has been all about how Amazon is now competing with Box and Dropbox. Dropbox also happens to be an Amazon Web Services S3 customer. This is not the first time Amazon has released a new service that competes against its own customers. Nasuni, Engine Yard, Heroku, OpenShift and MongoDB are just a few technology vendors with whom Amazon can partner/host and compete. This is not that unusual in the era of more open architectures and “co-opetition.” However, with this recent announcement, I couldn’t help but think back to when proprietary hooks and vendor lock-in were common and more explicit. What have we learned and what does it portend for the future of cloud computing and services?

I love just about anything that has to do with American history – even recent history. I’m a sucker for a good kurtretrospective. So I was psyched last week when the National Geographic channel debuted,“The 90s, The Last Great Decade?”, the follow up to their successful retrospective on the 1980s, “The 80’s: The Decade that made Us”. I guess all of us like nostalgia to some extent. We enjoy looking back at the horrible fashion choices we made; the hairstyles, the music, the movies, and everything pop culture. But one of the things I like best is seeing how far technology has evolved. And more importantly, what we learned from how things used to be. Past is prologue and the evolution of technology decades ago can be a harbinger of things to come.
netscapeIt’s easy to forget that the PC boom and Internet boom both happened in the span of a single decade, the 90s. And one of the most compelling stories retold in National Geographic Channel’s series is the “Browser Wars” that foreshadowed the end of the PC era and beginning of the Internet era. The short story is that Microsoft introduced the Internet Explorer (IE) browser in response to Netscape Navigator’s commanding share of the Web browser market and then used the monopoly power of its 90% share of the operating system market to make IE the default browser for PC manufacturers and Internet Service providers; effectively killing Netscape (though Netscape’s slow pace of innovation certainly didn’t help). Due to Microsoft’s monopoly power over the platform, Netscape, and every other independent software vendor (ISV) for that matter, had no choice but to build their application for the Windows platform and live with the risk that their success could lead Microsoft to introduce a competitive offering and use their OS monopoly power to make it the default choice.

I guess the retelling of the Browser Wars story and the AWS/ Zocalo announcement in the same week was fitting. Of course, neither AWS nor anyone else can command 90% of the cloud services market but that doesn’t mean that technology providers and vendors can’t pursue other ways of building “walled gardens” and monopoly-like power. They just have to go about it differently. But much like Microsoft 20 years ago, AWS has a growing ecosystem of ISVs that get to market via AWS and fill in gaps in AWS offerings. The gaps that AWS identifies as profitable are targets for AWS services that will compete with the ecosystem. ISVs know this, yet still gravitate to AWS due to its simplicity, APIs and low cost/GB. And even with the strong gravitational pull of their ecosystem, Amazon is nowhere near a monopoly. The answer is not a lawsuit, it’s more competition. Competition would foster innovation and give ISVs more choice in how or where to host their applications.

So why is there not enough competition? Many cloud service providers (CSPs) and ISVs have been scaredECS-Boxes-1 away from competing with public Infrastructure-as-Service (IaaS) providers or hosting their own infrastructure because they fear a never-ending race to the bottom. They don’t believe they can offer or afford a storage infrastructure that features the hyperscale economics and capabilities of public IaaS. And, for the most part, they’ve been right. Until today.

With the introduction of the EMC Elastic Cloud Storage ECS Appliance, powered by ViPR, EMC brings hyperscale capabilities and economics to everyone. The ECS Appliance is a commodity-based storage appliance differentiated by the ViPR software. For the first time, customers can purchase a complete cloud storage platform in a box with self-service access and universal protocol support. The EMC ECS Appliance features include:

• It’s built for hyperscale – ECS Appliance leverages commodity components, architected in such a way that it features no single points of failure and delivers an unmatched combination of storage efficiency and data access.
• Lower cost than public cloud – EMC TCO models show the ECS Appliance is 9-28% cheaper than public IaaS at scale.
• Universal protocol support – The ECS Appliance’s support for Object, Block and HDFS eliminates storage silos and inefficient Extract/Transform and Load (ETL) processes. This comprehensive support for different protocols and data types on the same platform means a CSP can support a broad range of applications and services on the same platform.

For the first time, enterprises, CSPs and ISVs can build a modern hyperscale storage infrastructure that leverages commodity platforms. Any data center can feature the economics of commodity platforms and the simplicity of cloud. They can offer the same experience; host a broad range of applications, offer developers simple access to industry standard APIs such as Amazon S3, OpenStack Swift, EMC Atmos, HDFS, etc., and be price competitive. I suppose in another decade or so, I can look forward to the next retrospective on the 10s. Maybe a 70-something year-old Rob Lowe will tell the story of how the economics of cloud storage changed in 2014 and ushered in a new era of innovation and economic growth. And how stupid everyone looked in skinny jeans.

About the Author: George Hamilton