26 Oct 2023

The Cloud Computer

Author image for Bryan Cantrill
Author image for Bryan Cantrill
Bryan Cantrill

Today we are announcing the general availability of the world’s first commercial cloud computer — along with our $44M Series A financing.

From the outset at Oxide, and as I outlined in my 2020 Stanford talk, we have had three core beliefs as a company:

  1. Cloud computing is the future of all computing infrastructure.

  2. The computer that runs the cloud should be able to be purchased and not merely rented.

  3. Building a cloud computer necessitates a rack-level approach — and the co-design of both hardware and software.

Of these beliefs, the first is not at all controversial: the agility, flexibility, and scalability of cloud computing have been indisputably essential for many of the services that we depend on in the modern economy.

The degree that the second belief is controversial, however, depends on who you are: for those that are already running on premises due to security, regulatory, economic, or latency reasons, it is self-evident that computers should be able to be purchased and not merely rented. But to others, this has been more of a revelation — and since we started Oxide, we have found more and more people realize that the rental-only model for the cloud is not sustainable. Friends love to tag us on links to VC thinkpieces, CTO rants, or analyst reports on industry trends — and we love people thinking of us, of course (even when being tagged for the dozenth time!) — but the only surprise is how surprising it continues to be for some folks.

The third belief — that the development of a cloud computer necessitates rack-scale design of both hardware and software — may seem iconoclastic to those who think only in terms of software, but it is in fact not controversial among technologists: as computing pioneer Alan Kay famously observed, "people who are really serious about software should make their own hardware." This is especially true in cloud computing, where the large public cloud companies have long ago come to the conclusion that they needed to be designing their own holistic systems. But if this isn’t controversial, why hasn’t there been a cloud computer before Oxide’s? First, because it’s big: to meaningfully build a cloud computer, one must break out of the shackles of the 1U or 2U server, and really think about the rack as the unit of design. Second, it hasn’t been done because it’s hard: co-designing hardware and software that spans compute, networking, and storage requires building an extraordinary team across disparate disciplines, coupling deep expertise with a strong sense of versatility, teamwork, and empathy. And the team isn’t enough by itself: it also needs courage, resilience, and (especially) time.

So the biggest question when we set out was not "is the market there?" or "is this the right way to do it?", but rather could we pull this off?

Pulling it off

We have indeed pulled it off — and it’s been a wild ride! While we have talked about the trek quite a bit on our podcast, Oxide and Friends (and specifically, Steve and I recently answered questions about the rack), our general availability is a good opportunity to reflect on some of the first impressions that the Oxide cloud computer has made upon those who have seen it.

"Where are all the boxes?"

The traditional rack-and-stack approach starts with a sea of boxes arriving with servers, racks, cabling, etc. This amounts to a literal kit car approach — and it starts with tedious, dusty, de-boxing. But the Oxide rack ships with everything installed and comes in just one box — a crate that is its own feat of engineering. All of this serves to dramatically reduce the latency from equipment arrival to power on and first provision — from weeks and months to days or even hours.

"Is it on?"

We knew at the outset that rack-level design would afford us the ability to change the geometry of compute sleds — that we would get higher density in the rack by trading horizontal real estate for vertical. We knew, too, that we were choosing to use 80mm fans for their ability to move more air much more efficiently — so much so that we leveraged our approach to the supply chain to partner with Sanyo Denki (our fan provider) to lower the minimum speed of the fans from 5K RPM to the 2K RPM that we needed. But adding it up, the Oxide rack has a surprising aesthetic attribute: it is whisper quiet. To those accustomed to screaming servers, this is so unexpected that when we were getting FCC compliance, the engineer running the test sheepishly asked us if we were sure the rack was on — when it was dissipating 15 kW! That the rack is quiet wasn’t really deliberate (and we are frankly much more interested in the often hidden power draw that blaring fan noise represents), but it does viscerally embody much of the Oxide differentiation with respect to both rack-level design and approach to the supply chain.

"Where are the cables?"

Anyone accustomed to a datacenter will note the missing mass of cold-aisle cabling that one typically sees at the front of a rack. But moving to the back of the rack reveals only a DC busbar and a tight, cabled backplane. This represents one of the bigger bets we made: we blindmated networking. This was mechanically tricky, but the payoff is huge: capacity can be added to the Oxide cloud computer simply by snapping in a new compute sled — nothing to be cabled whatsoever! This is a domain in which we have leapfrogged the hyperscalers, who (for their own legacy reasons) don’t do it this way. This can be jarring to veteran technologists. As one exclaimed upon seeing the rack last week, "I am both surprised and delighted!" (Or rather: a very profane variant of that sentiment.)

"You did your own switch too?!"

When we first started the company, one of our biggest technical quandaries was what to do about the switch. At some level, both paths seemed untenable: we knew from our own experience that integrating with third-party switches would lead to exactly the kind of integration pain for customers that we sought to alleviate — but it also seemed outrageously ambitious to do our own switch in addition to everything else we were doing. But as we have many times over the course of Oxide, we opted for the steeper path in the name of saving our customers grief, choosing to build our own switch. If it has to be said, getting it working isn’t easy! And of course, building the switch is insufficient: we also needed to build our own networking software — to say nothing of the management network required to be able to manage compute sleds when they’re powered off.

"Wait, that’s part of it?!"

It’s one thing to say that all of the software that one needs to operate the cloud computer is built in — but it’s another to actually see what that software includes. And for many, it’s seeing the Oxide web console (or its live demo!) that really drives the message home: yes, all of the software is included. And because the console implementation is built on the public API, everything that one can do in the console for the Oxide rack is also available via CLI and API — a concrete manifestation of our code-as-contract approach.

"And there’s no separate licensing?"

One common source of pain for users of on-prem infrastructure has been license management: financial pain due to over-paying and under-utilizing, and operational pain in the navigation of different license terms, different expiration dates, unpredictable dependencies, and uncertain vendor futures. From the beginning we knew that we wanted to deliver a delightful, integrated experience: we believe that cloud computers should come complete with all system software built-in, and with no additional licensing to manage or to pay for. Bug fixes and new features are always only an update away and do not require a multi-departmental discussion to determine value and budget.

"It’s all open source?"

While the software is an essential part of the Oxide cloud computer, what we sell is in fact the computer. As a champion of open source, this allows Oxide a particularly straightforward open source strategy: our software is all open. So you don’t need to worry about hinky open core models or relicensing surprises. And from a user perspective, you are assured levels of transparency that you don’t get in the public cloud — let alone the proprietary on-prem world.

Getting your own first impression

We’re really excited to have the first commercial cloud computer — and for it to be generally available! If you yourself are interested, we look forward to it making its first impression on you — reach out to us!