Building Computers for the Cloud with Steve Tuck
Steve Tuck, Co-Founder & CEO of Oxide Computer Company, joins Corey on Screaming in the Cloud to discuss his work to make modern computers cloud-friendly. Steve describes what it was like going through early investment rounds, and the difficult but important decision he and his co-founder made to build their own switch. Corey and Steve discuss the demand for on-prem computers that are built for cloud capability, and Steve reveals how Oxide approaches their product builds to ensure the masses can adopt their technology wherever they are.
Steve is the Co-founder & CEO of Oxide Computer Company. He previously was President & COO of Joyent, a cloud computing company acquired by Samsung. Before that, he spent 10 years at Dell in a number of different roles.
- Oxide Computer Company: https://oxide.computer/
- On The Metal Podcast: https://oxide.computer/podcasts/on-the-metal
Announcer: Hello, and welcome to Screaming in the Cloud with your host, Chief Cloud Economist at The Duckbill Group, Corey Quinn. This weekly show features conversations with people doing interesting work in the world of cloud, thoughtful commentary on the state of the technical world, and ridiculous titles for which Corey refuses to apologize. This is Screaming in the Cloud.
Corey: This episode is brought to us in part by our friends at RedHat. As your organization grows, so does the complexity of your IT resources. You need a flexible solution that lets you deploy, manage, and scale workloads throughout your entire ecosystem. The Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform simplifies the management of applications and services across your hybrid infrastructure with one platform. Look for it on the AWS Marketplace.
Corey: Welcome to Screaming in the Cloud. I’m Corey Quinn. You know, I often say it—but not usually on the show—that Screaming in the Cloud is a podcast about the business of cloud, which is intentionally overbroad so that I can talk about basically whatever the hell I want to with whoever the hell I’d like. Today’s guest is, in some ways of thinking, about as far in the opposite direction from Cloud as it’s possible to go and still be involved in the digital world. Steve Tuck is the CEO at Oxide Computer Company. You know, computers, the things we all pretend aren’t underpinning those clouds out there that we all use and pay by the hour, gigabyte, second-month-pound or whatever it works out to. Steve, thank you for agreeing to come back on the show after a couple years, and once again suffer my slings and arrows.
Steve: Much appreciated. Great to be here. It has been a while. I was looking back, I think three years. This was like, pre-pandemic, pre-interest rates, pre… Twitter going totally sideways.
Corey: And I have to ask to start with that, it feels, on some level, like toward the start of the pandemic, when everything was flying high and we’d had low interest rates for a decade, that there was a lot of… well, lunacy lurking around in the industry, my own business saw it, too. It turns out that not giving a shit about the AWS bill is in fact a zero interest rate phenomenon. And with all that money or concentrated capital sloshing around, people decided to do ridiculous things with it. I would have thought, on some level, that, “We’re going to start a computer company in the Bay Area making computers,” would have been one of those, but given that we are a year into the correction, and things seem to be heading up into the right for you folks, that take was wrong. How’d I get it wrong?
Steve: Well, I mean, first of all, you got part of it right, which is there were just a litany of ridiculous companies and projects and money being thrown in all directions at that time.
Corey: An NFT of a computer. We’re going to have one of those. That’s what you’re selling, right? Then you had to actually hard pivot to making the real thing.
Steve: That’s it. So, we might as well cut right to it, you know. This is—we went through the crypto phase. But you know, our—when we started the company, it was yes, a computer company. It’s on the tin. It’s definitely kind of the foundation of what we’re building. But you know, we think about what a modern computer looks like through the lens of cloud.
I was at a cloud computing company for ten years prior to us founding Oxide, so was Bryan Cantrill, CTO, co-founder. And, you know, we are huge, huge fans of cloud computing, which was an interesting kind of dichotomy. Instead of conversations when we were raising for Oxide—because of course, Sand Hill is terrified of hardware. And when we think about what modern computers need to look like, they need to be in support of the characteristics of cloud, and cloud computing being not that you’re renting someone else’s computers, but that you have fully programmable infrastructure that allows you to slice and dice, you know, compute and storage and networking however software needs. And so, what we set out to go build was a way for the companies that are running on-premises infrastructure—which, by the way, is almost everyone and will continue to be so for a very long time—access to the benefits of cloud computing. And to do that, you need to build a different kind of computing infrastructure and architecture, and you need to plumb the whole thing with software.
Corey: There are a number of different ways to view cloud computing. And I think that a lot of the, shall we say, incumbent vendors over in the computer manufacturing world tend to sound kind of like dinosaurs, on some level, where they’re always talking in terms of, you’re a giant company and you already have a whole bunch of data centers out there. But one of the magical pieces of cloud is you can have a ridiculous idea at nine o’clock tonight and by morning, you’ll have a prototype, if you’re of that bent. And if it turns out it doesn’t work, you’re out, you know, 27 cents. And if it does work, you can keep going and not have to stop and rebuild on something enterprise-grade.
So, for the small-scale stuff and rapid iteration, cloud providers are terrific. Conversely, when you wind up in the giant fleets of millions of computers, in some cases, there begin to be economic factors that weigh in, and for some on workloads—yes, I know it’s true—going to a data center is the economical choice. But my question is, is starting a new company in the direction of building these things, is it purely about economics or is there a capability story tied in there somewhere, too?
Steve: Yeah, it’s actually economics ends up being a distant third, fourth, in the list of needs and priorities from the companies that we’re working with. When we talk about—and just to be clear we’re—our demographic, that kind of the part of the market that we are focused on are large enterprises, like, folks that are spending, you know, half a billion, billion dollars a year in IT infrastructure, they, over the last five years, have moved a lot of the use cases that are great for public cloud out to the public cloud, and who still have this very, very large need, be it for latency reasons or cost reasons, security reasons, regulatory reasons, where they need on-premises infrastructure in their own data centers and colo facilities, et cetera. And it is for those workloads in that part of their infrastructure that they are forced to live with enterprise technologies that are 10, 20, 30 years old, you know, that haven’t evolved much since I left Dell in 2009. And, you know, when you think about, like, what are the capabilities that are so compelling about cloud computing, one of them is yes, what you mentioned, which is you have an idea at nine o’clock at night and swipe a credit card, and you’re off and running. And that is not the case for an idea that someone has who is going to use the on-premises infrastructure of their company. And this is where you get shadow IT and 16 digits to freedom and all the like.
Corey: Yeah, everyone with a corporate credit card winds up being a shadow IT source in many cases. If your processes as a company don’t make it easier to proceed rather than doing it the wrong way, people are going to be fighting against you every step of the way. Sometimes the only stick you’ve got is that of regulation, which in some industries, great, but in other cases, no, you get to play Whack-a-Mole. I’ve talked to too many companies that have specific scanners built into their mail system every month looking for things that look like AWS invoices.
Steve: [laugh]. Right, exactly. And so, you know, but if you flip it around, and you say, well, what if the experience for all of my infrastructure that I am running, or that I want to provide to my software development teams, be it rented through AWS, GCP, Azure, or owned for economic reasons or latency reasons, I had a similar set of characteristics where my development team could hit an API endpoint and provision instances in a matter of seconds when they had an idea and only pay for what they use, back to kind of corporate IT. And what if they were able to use the same kind of developer tools they’ve become accustomed to using, be it Terraform scripts and the kinds of access that they are accustomed to using? How do you make those developers just as productive across the business, instead of just through public cloud infrastructure?
At that point, then you are in a much stronger position where you can say, you kn