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But Sun Microsystems Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos thinks the idea will pan out eventually.
"The world needs only five computers," Papadopoulos said on his blog. He then listed seven--Google, eBay, Amazon.com, Microsoft, Yahoo, Salesforce.com, and what he called the Great Computer of China--but let's not split hairs. He was trying to make the point that "there will be, more or less, five hyperscale, pan-global broadband computing services giants."
Sun caters to pan-global hyperscale customers, so it's not surprising that its top technologist sees the world through data center-colored glasses. But the Santa Clara, Calif.-based company's vision has been right on target more than once--notably in forecasting the rise of the Internet.
Papadopoulos detailed his vision in an interview recently with CNET News.com's Stephen Shankland.
Q: For starters, describe your thesis. You think there are going to be five or six computers at some point in the future, and that's all the world needs?
Papadopoulos: I think what we're going to be seeing is a huge consolidation around scale. Scale matters, and efficiency of scale matters. You've got to get beyond some critical size, and once you're there you'll start absorbing other, less-efficient people into your system. It's a very large-scale distributed system.
What's your definition of a computer? Most people think of a computer as a PC or maybe a server, but I think few people think of a computer as what eBay runs on--8,000 computers or whatever.
Papadopoulos: What I'm saying is a computer--Google runs a computer. It happens to have hundreds of thousands of processors in it, and millions of disk drives, but it's a computer. The important distinction is there is a point of control that determines what software is going to run, and then the systems work collectively to provide some service.
So under this definition, you think that there are only going to be four or five or six of these?
Papadopoulos: I think it's going to look more like the five or six, like there are five or six multinational energy companies. There are hundreds of multinational energy companies, but there are five or six that really get to the scale of being able to efficiently do the whole thing. If you have someone who is 10 times the scale of someone else, they're able to spend more money on R&D and architecture. They're able to invest more in engineering to get it to be more efficient. That inevitably tips towards larger systems. So whether it's five or six or 12 is not the issue; it's the consolidation around the very large scale.
What happens to everybody else? (Sun CEO) Jonathan Schwartz used the corner dentist office as an example--these people, they end up being a tenant or a client who taps into one of these large systems. So if you're one of the survivors, then you end up hosting software for some huge constellation of customers?
Papadopoulos: Exactly. It's called software as a service. It really is the running of what we think of as IT through the network. You don't buy software, you buy the consequence of the software. That starts with the small and medium enterprises. eBay, in my mind, is the leading example of small businesses being absorbed by services. Anybody who clicks their store on eBay is in fact consuming a service. They are contributing to a larger-scale eBay rather than them buying some server and sticking it on their desk.
If there's a tremendous diversity of small clients running on these very large infrastructures, then these very large infrastructures are going to have to accommodate that variety. When I think of eBay today, I think of auctions and direct sales. When I think of Amazon, you think of e-commerce. But when I think of all the businesses out there in the world that use computers today, they use computers for everything under the sun. Does that mean that Amazon is going to become some generic computing infrastructure that gets tailored for all kinds of different things? That seems like a very different incarnation of eBay or Amazon than what they have today.
Papadopoulos: Amazon, I think, sees a bit of this direction. Their Elastic Computing Cloud is at least an experiment in the area. You'll get people specializing in particular kinds of businesses and caring for those businesses. If you are a small business today, or you're a start-up, mostly you'll get services from service providers. You'll get your e-mail somewhere, you'll get your sales and customer relationship service from somewhere else, you'll do a storefront somewhere else. There will be people who will consolidate that for you in the future.
So you envision the big guys like Amazon becoming generic infrastructure, and then you have a whole bunch of middlemen packaging that up, and tailoring it to the needs of the actual clients?
Papadopoulos: Yeah, initially. I don't know whether the intermediaries will survive or they ultimately get absorbed. For example, you see what American Express is doing with small businesses, and you could certainly imagine them filling out their repertoire of things that they offer. I just wonder whether the intermediaries get in front of them, and they broker those folks as wholesale services, or if ultimately (the intermediaries) get absorbed into them. I would doubt that the intermediaries will ultimately get absorbed simply because knowing the customer and controlling the customer is so important.