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Does Hardware Matter?

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Oct 30, 2008


Drew Robb
Having written about hardware and software since the 1990s, it has become very apparent that the romance is not longer there. It's a new box, it's a faster processor, it's more memory, it's smaller, it's greener — on and on. Hard-Core Hardware: Faster, bigger, cheaper, greener -- Does anyone care what's inside the box anymore, or is server room hardware going the way of the television and telephone?

But does anyone really care anymore?

The IT guys want as much of everything they can get for as low a price as possible. Beyond that, a steadily declining number of the hardware faithful appear to be truly interested in what's inside the box.

Think about it in the historical context. Back in the 1940s, the ENIAC captured the imagination of the world as a giant brain and generated massive buzz in the popular press. Further room-sized, vacuum-tube infested monsters continued to spark the popular imagination for years afterwards.

Compare that to a recent major announcement from Sun or IBM about big gains in processor performance: mild interest in the trade press; no coverage at all in the popular media. It's enough to make you wonder if enterprise hardware really matters.

What is interesting to the world at large is the iPhone, Google Maps and maybe Windows Vista's ups and downs. By and large, it's the consumer side that dominates. Enterprise stuff isn't in the picture.

It is reminiscent of what happened in the consumer software arena. A decade ago, walking the aisles of Fry's Electronics to see all the different kinds of software on display seemed like a cool way to spend time. Who does that today?

It's getting the same way with hardware. Within the span of a couple of years, multi-core processors may have become what people specify, but they seem to have lost the awe they once held. They are just normal. Soon enough, we'll have eight core, sixteen core and so on. It seems to have stopped mattering.

Going back in time again, you can imagine the news stories from around a hundred years ago about this new marvel of technology innovation — the telephone exchange. I bet it gained a lot of press in its earliest forms. Today, telecom moves on by leaps and bounds, yet nobody gives a damn. In fact, telecom back-end technology is largely sidelined into a very specialist group. It is the fodder for a few trade pubs, and no one else.

More evidence for the prosecution: Aberdeen Group's list of the most influential IT vendors. Microsoft, Oracle and SAP claimed the top three spots before we get IBM, Dell, HP and Cisco. Then its Salesforce.com and EMC, and finally Sun. Note that EMC was a hardware vendor a decade ago, and has been steadily moving into software and services to survive. Intel barely broke the top 30.

Eventually, hardware is going to get like phone service or telecom in general. You buy your line, specify the speeds and feeds, and don't concern yourself with the hardware that sits in the background.

How long have we got? Perhaps another five years or so before hardware — at least on the enterprise side — loses its luster altogether. But the rot has already set in.

Perhaps the beginning of the end was the demise of Comdex. All of a sudden, nobody wanted an enterprise computing show. When I attended CEEBIT in Germany last year, there were 13 massive warehouses of display space. Yet finding hardware vendors was like the old needle and haystack caper. I eventually found a few, but it made me start to wonder. Server hardware and even storage gear were but a tiny sideshow in comparison to the space afforded to banking applications, healthcare systems and such things as RFID.

When you really will be able to tell that hardware doesn't matter anymore is if columns like this one start to disappear, replaced by other subjects. I wonder how long it will be before that happens.

Ed Note: Ironically, days after this article was written, the decision was made to change the frequency of Hard-Core Hardware from weekly to every other week. Drew will be writing about career-related topics in the off weeks.

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