For this reason, a couple of recent articles about computer hardware caught my attention. First, Dell is losing business as companies like Facebook build their own customized servers. Open source database performance experts like Peter Zaitsev have been talking about full-stack optimization including hardware for years. Google built their original servers using off-the-shelf parts. Vertical integration of applications and hardware has since gone mainstream. If you deploy the same application(s) on many machines, balancing characteristics like cost, performance, and power utilization is no longer a specialist activity but a necessity of business. It's not just cutting out the Microsoft tax but many other optimizations as well.
Second, developments in hardware itself are making custom systems more attractive to a wide range of users. A recent blog post by Bunnie Huang describes how decreases in the slope of CPU clock speed increase over time mean you can get better cost/performance by building optimized, application-specific systems now than waiting for across-the-board improvements. Stable standards also drive down the difficulty of rolling your own. Components on mid-range servers are sufficiently standardized it is easier to build basic systems from components than to put together a bicycle from scratch. Try building your own wheels sometime if you don't believe this.
Easily customizable hardware has important consequences. At a business level, Dell and other mainline hardware vendors will adapt to lower margins, but the market for generic, mid-range appliances has evaporated. Starting around 2005 there was a wave of companies trying to sell open source databases, memcached, and datamarts on custom hardware. Most seem to have moved away from hardware, like Schooner, or folded entirely (like Gear6 and Kickfire). The long-term market for such appliances, to the extent it exists, is in the cloud.
The other consequence is potentially far more significant. The traditional walls that encapsulated hardware and software design are breaking down. Big web properties or large ISPs like Rackspace run lean design teams that integrate hardware with open source software deployment. This not just a matter of software engineers learning about hardware or vice-versa. It is the tip of a much bigger iceberg. Facebook recently started the Open Compute Project, which is a community-based effort to design server infrastructure. In their own words:
By releasing Open Compute Project technologies as open hardware, our goal is to develop servers and data centers following the model traditionally associated with open source software projects. That’s where you come in.Facebook and others are opening up data center design. Gamers have been building their own systems for years. Assuming Bunnie's logic is correct, open hardware will apply to wide range of devices from phones up to massive clusters. Community-based, customized system designs are no longer an oddity but part of a broad movement that will change the way all of us think about building and deploying applications on any kind of physical hardware. It will upset current companies but also create opportunities for new kinds of businesses. The "cloud" is not the only revolution in computing. Open source hardware has arrived.