Five Predictions for Hardware in 2021

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As we wrap up one year, it is natural to think about what the next will hold.

Here are my top five predictions.

As we wrap up one year, it is natural to think about what the next will hold.

From the global pandemic to the raucous political landscape, 2020 more earned its stripes as a year for the record books. Throughout it all, internet infrastructure was at the forefront, helping to power our collective responses to the challenges of work from home, entertainment, safety, vaccine research, and more.

I’ve been a data center nerd for a long time, and my crystal ball suggests that the physical hardware that underpins our digital world is going to be a star of the show throughout 2021. As Google’s Tim Hockin predicted back in 2017, “This is an exciting time for boring infrastructure.”

Here are my top five predictions.

#1 - Arm Goes Mainstream in the Cloud

With the introduction of Apple Silicon, Arm’s pending acquisition by NVIDIA, big investments by AWS in its ARM-based Graviton lineup, and a steady stream of cloud-native software and build systems optimized for Aarch64, it seems that Acorn RISC Machine (ARM) is ready for mainstream adoption in the cloud. In addition to public cloud offerings by Oracle and AWS, I’ll be interested to see how end users respond to upcoming Arm-based options from Ampere Computing in 2021.

Industry analysts such as Gartner have been discussing Arm servers for over ten years. My own background with the “Arm in the datacenter” journey dates back to 2016, when I helped to bring the first Arm-based CPU’s to the cloud market under the Packet brand. The industry has evolved a lot since then, and no matter what happens I expect we’ll see more and diverse kinds of silicon making noise in 2021.

Five years ago, in December 2016, I helped to launch the first public cloud Arm servers in a ceremony in Tokyo with leaders from Arm, Cavium, Foxconn and SoftBank.

#2 - SmartNICs Bring Disaggregation to the Enterprise

Along the domain of hyperscalers, the promise of SmartNICs has been elusive for most enterprises. Mary Branscombe’s article in Datacenter Knowledge from early 2019 sums up the issue well: “Do Smart Network Cards Have a Future Outside the Hyperscale Data Center?

My assessment is that the answer to Mary’s question is finally ‘yes’ and that 2021 will be the year we start to see it for real. There are two reasons why:

  1. More Options - With a new batch of hardware hitting the market — including options from Pensando, Nvidia / Mellanox, Broadcom, Fungible and more — enterprises have a diverse set of mature partners to choose from.
  2. Software is Getting Smarter - Initiatives like VMware’s Project Monterey, announced this Fall, are helping to democratize composable infrastructure.

My prediction is that in 2021 we start to see SmartNICs replace normal NICs in most modern servers. This will help to unlock the benefits of disaggregated hardware for more users, including around security, networking performance, and efficiency. NVME drives over ethernet? Machine Learning cards attached over the network? Why yes, I’ll take some of that.

With more SmartNICs available, I also expect that eBPF (the Extended Berkeley Packet Filter) continues to rise in popularity with cloud native developers.

#3 - Liquid Cooling Gets Hot

Even though nanometers are going down, server-class processors are getting bigger. Driven by demand from hyperscalers, AMD’s top of the line chip has 64 cores, Intel is likely to release a 36 core Xeon, and Ampere’s Altra Max has 128 cores on a single chip. In addition to more cores, machine learning (ML) is moving from a niche to a standard workload across all kinds of businesses, driving up use cases that leverage high-powered systems.

These trends together are pushing standard datacenter technologies to the limit...at least when it comes to power. Enterprise servers now regularly top 800W and as a result, I think that in 2021 we’ll see roadmaps for 48V native server motherboards as we reach the end of 12V DC tolerance. This, along with sustainability targets and the power constraints of edge environments, will accelerate a movement from air-cooled racks to liquid-cooled servers.

#4 - Appliances are Popular Again, Thanks to Subscriptions

While software has steadily been eating the world, it has also been making hyper-converged infrastructure much more exciting. When paired with advances in bleeding-edge hardware (such as SmartNICs, high performance memory like Intel Optane, and machine learning accelerators), hardware appliances are helping enterprises consume “best of breed” technologies more easily.

As more companies look to get the benefits of a fully managed “cloud” in more places, appliances from the likes of Nutanix, Pure, Dell, NVIDIA and others (e.g. AWS Outposts) are increasingly attractive.

There’s another trend pushing appliances forward in 2021: subscriptions. As customers look for consumption-based solutions, most of the major vendors have embraced subscriptions or similar models to decrease upfront risk and provide new services over time.

#5 - Open19 Emerges at the Edge

As the race for the edge heats up in earnest, and new hardware further defines workloads, everyone wants an easier way to get hardware in (and sometimes out) of increasingly distributed locations. One of the strongest answers is Open19, which was born out of innovation at LinkedIn.As president of the Open19 Foundation, I’m obviously biased!

Open19 is a standards-based form factor that allows the cheapest part of the CAPEX (sheet metal and cables) to be installed months or years in advance of the more expensive and fast-evolving compute components. Open19’s low operational costs and incremental capital deployment model is perfect for the edge, which is growing quickly.

I predict that the growing importance and rate of change for specialized hardware, the rise of disaggregated architectures and the need for cost and power efficient operations will help Open19 emerge as a strong deployment model at the edge.