Hardware and Architecture

13 November 2012

Software engineers and data professionals are constrained by the direction of computing hardware (Norvig). CPU speed has improved more quickly than the speed of RAM, and dramatically outpaced disk/network speed.

The Basics

An application can execute 8 million CPU instructions in the time it takes to do a 1 seek to disk. It can execute 150 million instructions in the time a packet does a network round trip via the Internet.

If your application goes to disk or the network, its performance capability slows down by several orders of magnitude. If the application has to do this synchronously, its performance is pretty well shot.

Let's bring these speeds to human scale.


The abundance of computing speed and the relative scarcity of hardware/network speed has big implications for application design.

Algorithms and data structures that save disk/network usage at the expense of CPU cost are making an excellent trade. A canonical example is using compression to fit more of an application in into L1 cache, L2 cache, and RAM.

The most compelling features of some large data applications use compression:

It is cheaper to move code to the data than the reverse. A Hadoop cluster will try and sends the map() and reduce() code to the nodes that already have the data, for just this reason.

Web applications transmit compressed data to the browser, which can use JavaScript and abundant CPU power to do complicated rendering. This exploits two hardware trends:

  1. Compressed data is smaller than a corresponding graphic, reducing network delay. . There is more CPU capacity on 1,000,000 clients than 200 servers, so companies can buy less hardware for the same user load.

Big Fat Checks

The logic is different for enterprises. Proven, reliable options are more important than fast or cheap ones. Large businesses are willing to spend more to buy tiered SAN storage than help their engineers learn about caching. Why? Because the former is vendor-supported and proven to work over decades.

This is a losing strategy. The best applications use hardware trends to their advantage, rather than try to overcome them using sheer scale or price.

The cost of basic compute resources (quad-core CPUs, 16-64GB of RAM, 2-3TB of magnetic disk) is dirt cheap and getting cheaper. Hardware and core applications are rapidly becoming a commodity or service.

Challenge = Opportunity

These ideas aren't grasped by many engineers, and certainly not many architects. That's a shame, but it means that it's very possible to achieve dramatic performance improvements by thinking carefully.

For any hard-core engineers out there, I have a humble request: study compression algorithms. Write them into existing, easy-to-use libraries in as many languages as you can. In the long run, this has the potential to reduce cost and increase performance across a massive number of applications.

The 2010-2020 decade in computing is turning out to be an exciting one. Let's help shape it to to be even better.