Servers Commoditize Hardware while Devices Specializes Hardware

May 14, 2013

Devices and servers are following opposite tracks at the moment. Servers strive for commoditization while devices focus on specialization.

Pendulum

Technologies swing like pendulums – going from one end of the pendulum with a given worldview, towards the other end. At this point in time, servers are focused on commoditization while devices are focused on specialization.

Commoditization of IT is driven first and foremost by the change in the hardware you find in data centers. From standardized, commodity hardware to the software running on top of them. I’ve written about this commoditization of IT trend in Amdocs Voices last week.

You can buy your machines from one vendor – have Intel CPUs inside them – mass produces (hence commoditized) – run Linux operating system on top – usually with a variety of multiple open source components. In the world of servers today, differentiation and innovation is driven by the types of integration done by stitching existing components of various other vendors. If you are looking for how this is achieved, just check out the latest interviews I’ve done with WebRTC vendor – the ways they have solved their backend software challenges – it is mostly by using off-the-shelf components, repurposed for their needs.

At the end, there’s no single vendor that controls the whole hardware and software stacks – it just doesn’t make business sense.

On the devices market, the situation is just the opposite. Apple has shown that vertically integrating close to everything is a huge differentiator – something that Samsung is copying with great success. Apple today does everything from designing its chips and up to writing the software that runs its phones and tablets.

If you look a bit under the hood of smartphones, they are similar, but very different. The difference comes from specialized hardware: the ARM architecture used in smartphones get its performance gains by accelerators. It starts with simple issues like the radio modem in cellular, visualization and media compression; but then it gets to the interesting bits. Here are a few nice twists that handset vendors have placed to their hardware designs:

These are different systems, each requiring the integration of hardware with software.

The pace at which these devices are introduced to the market and then replaced by newer generations is such that the speed of commoditization of the components is slower than the speed of introduction of new hardware innovations.

The differences at the end of the day might be minor, as all of these smartphones end up looking relatively the same, but the underlying hardware is quite different at its edges.

As the pendulum continues its swing, expect servers to go for a specialization period, maybe with the introduction of more ARM based servers; and the smartphones to go through a commoditization period, where the lower end of the smartphone spectrum ends up using a superset of commoditized feature set.


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