Opsware’s chairman takes out server trash

Steering his company from a managed services business model into uncharted software provider waters, Marc Andreessen, chairman and co-founder of Opsware Inc., is no stranger to unique challenges. The former CTO of America Online Inc. and CTO of Netscape Communications Corp. recently sat down with InfoWorld (U.S.) staff writer Brian Fonseca to discuss his thoughts on the enablement of IT automation, the rapid commodity of hardware, and why blade servers are ultimately headed for the trash bin.

NWC: What are the enterprise and budget consequences of current IT automation solutions focused on cutting costs?

Andreessen: The consequences are really good. There’re a whole bunch of interesting changes going on as a result of lowering cost. People are going after hardware with a meat cleaver – they’re trying to figure out how to radically reduce costs of hardware. We’re seeing that across the board. We’re seeing a very broad pickup in Intel-based servers for enterprise applications versus more traditional proprietary big iron, including big Unix systems. The way people look at that is they’re going to switch from having a US$300,000 big Unix box to having ten US$3,000 Intel servers, and they’ll be running the exact same application and they’ll be running it faster and it’ll be more redundant and a lot cheaper. On the software side, we’re seeing a huge amount of interest in Linux and an equal amount of interest in Microsoft, and both of those are coming at the expense of everything else – everything else being other operating systems and other platforms. That transition is now under way.

NWC: How does Opsware play into autonomic computing, utility computing, and the grid computing model? Is there a gap to fill?

Andreessen: Not only is there a gap to fill, but somebody has to deliver on this in the long-term. What the customers are faced with is the challenge that involves every single product they’ve got from every single vendor they’ve ever bought from. So everybody is a potential adopter in any of these things. They’ve got a bunch of stuff from IBM, from Microsoft, from Intel, from Dell, from Compaq, from HP, from Sun, you go right down the list, from Oracle – they’ve got it all. We think what’s happening is the concepts are getting popularized and certainly those guys are going to do a great job at what they do, but it’s going to be very focused on their products. We support everything from Microsoft, to Linux, to Solaris, to AIX, to HP-UX, and on and on for the operating system side.

NWC: What type of advantage does its origin as a managed service provider hold for Opsware’s foray into the difficult software provider climate?

Andreessen: It’s huge. The reason it’s huge is because we’re really the only one that’s run this stuff in practice. All the software startups, they have no experience actually running any of this. They have no real-world experience they’ve built into their software and they have nothing that they can point to. They have no references. Nobody’s adopted their software on a large scale like EDS has with us, or like Loudcloud has with Opsware, so they’re just getting started in a market that’s very skeptical and very hostile toward new companies.

InfoWorld: What are Opsware’s plans for the blade server space?

Andreessen: In general, blade servers are a subset of a broader trend we see happening that we call “disposable servers.” Servers have gotten a lot cheaper since the mainframe. A server two years ago was likely to be a box costing anywhere between US$30,000 and US$3 million, and it was a big important box that runs big important applications and if it breaks or something goes wrong there’re a lot of people that are going to get involved in fixing it. If people shift to the distributed application architecture with the Web, application servers and redundancy, and horizontal scaling where they’ll tend to run a much large number of servers but those servers will tend to be much cheaper, you head into a world where the servers themselves become disposable, and I literally mean disposable. Which is, a server that cost US$1,000 or US$2,000 is not worth fixing. It’s so cheap it’s not worth the effort to ever try to open it up and fix it. The consequence of that is you’re going to have a much larger number of servers that are individually going to be much cheaper and disposable, and applications will be written to be redundant across many servers so you can fail over and can throw those things away.

I nfoWorld: How can customers make sense of hardware and software invested in with alignment toward business needs?

Andreessen: Right now when you think about IT, every application has its own infrastructure and its own servers – everything is very ad-hoc and people are running around fighting a lot of fires. In the future, I think you’ll think about it more as capacity on demand, file a formal request for new capacity or system – those come online very, very quickly. There’s a formal service-level agreement relationship between the IT department and the business user and that’s tracked and managed by software. There’s a formal billing relationship, where you know how much this stuff is costing, there’s the ability to scale up and scale down very smoothly to be able to make sure that the costs matches what’s actually needed, but that implies tying into all the other businesses people are running and that’s something we’re very much going to be involved in.

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