Composability in the IT Stack

Consider the environment from which your predecessor CIO evaluated the infrastructure stack in the pre-Cloud era. The windows operating system had a near monopoly as did the office suite. So when evaluating email, Exchange server was an obvious choice. Exchange exclusively ran on Windows Server so the CIO made that purchase as well. Windows Server includes Active Directory, so of course that will be the identity service. With several pieces of the enterprise’s infrastructure composed on the Microsoft stack, the CIO became much more inclined to go with other Microsoft products as well: SQL Server, Dynamics CRM, SharePoint, etc. The Microsoft products may not be the best in a vacuum, but no one operates in vacuum. Support, maintenance, established relationships, contracts, trust and integration are areas that a smaller vendor set would provide gains in streamlined operations.

The first piece of Composable infrastructure actually came from Microsoft itself. Windows Server ran on consumer-grade x86 processors, which progressively led to the demise of the integrated server alternatives. Software running on commodity hardware has permeated into networking, storage, and other parts of the IT stack. This is low-end disruption: the incumbents built their companies around selling and servicing integrated hardware and software solutions, while the new entrants modularized the stack. The modular and composable stack has been annunciated by a confluence of broader trends in IT processes:

Microsoft itself has admitted that it’s strategy has changed under CEO Satya Nadella, who said, “In our mobile-first and cloud-first world, people need easier ways to create, share and collaborate regardless of their device or platform.” This has resulted in announcing support for best in breed storage solutions through the maturation of it’s Cloud Storage Partner Program. Microsoft has embraced diversity and composable IT in what has traditionally been a closed Office environment.

So how do you respond to the dynamic and decentralized environment in which modern IT practitioners operate? Dropbox SVP and former worldwide VP of SMB at Microsoft Thomas Hansen says, “the really revolutionary thing about the application cloud is that once your data is cloud addressable you can treat many applications as interchangeable and composable services. By interchangeable I mean that you can choose the best-in-class solution for your particular problem and easily switch to another as your needs change or better options emerge. Composability means that you can package collections of applications together in very individualized ways to create dashboards or other custom services. What the cloud really does, on so many levels, is to increase our flexibility, our ability to change.”

SaaS has removed the burden of support and maintenance, so it suddenly doesn’t necessarily make sense to buy from only one vendor simply because they are integrated. There is more freedom to evaluate a particular product on different characteristics: how easy it is to use, or how well it supports mobile. And it’s here that Microsoft products, particularly the hated OneDrive and SharePoint, were found to be lacking.

In the primary cloud computing market, Amazon, Google and Microsoft provide the foundational needs: compute, storage & delivery, database and networking. However, the primary cloud solutions do not address the headache that comes from data management, ubiquitous access, full text search, versioning and others. Michael Hanken, VP of IT for Multiquip, echoed this, noting: “It’s not the physical storage rather than the surrounding efforts (retrieval, tagging, compliance, analysis… ).”

In a composable IT environment, Wired’s Cade Metz describes a “growing secondary market centered around Dropbox, its arch-rival,, Workday, and others — offering pre-built software applications” that help address these secondary enterprise efforts. The storage & delivery of information requires large hardware and software resources that must work in concert to efficiently deliver good levels of Internet service performance, something that can only be achieved by a holistic approach to their design and deployment. In other words, we must treat these applications, datacenter assets and all the information within it as one massive warehouse-scale computer.

From an infrastructure perspective, for most companies, “The right answer is to actually not do this your self” according to Urs Hölzle Google’s SVP of technical infrastructure. While storage remains the lifeline of the technology world, Hölzle cited that most companies lack the size, economies of scale and sophistication needed to execute.

However, the performance requirements and unit economics for 500 million users and 500 petabytes (i.e., 5 followed by 17 zeroes!) of data have driven Dropbox to a size that made sense to build a custom exabyte scale storage system. The full story is recounted in wired’s “The epic Story of Dropbox’s Exodus from the Amazon Cloud Empire.” Dropbox was envisioned as a place where you keep all your stuff, it doesn’t get lost, and you can always access it, a magic pocket, said Akhil Gupta, VP of Infrastructure at Dropbox and previously principal engineer on Google’s search ad infrastructure.

As technology helps to re-imagine the modern enterprise in an environment of constant change, the software-defined data center, infrastructure stack and application layer will be composed of best in breed solutions. Hansen concludes, “They will use applications to address all of this data in ways that maximize the time and value of their people. Our preliminary research indicates that these companies are more productive than their less modern competitors.”

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