Dreadnaught for Change
In 1903, Vittorio Cuniberti published an article entitled “An Ideal Battleship for the British Fleet,” in Jane’s publication All the World’s Fighting Ships. Vittorio was the chief naval architect of the Italian Navy. His article called for the development of all big gun ship (i.e. twelve 12 inch guns) displacing 17,000 tons. The thinking in the naval community around an all big gun ship had already been occurring, but Vittorrio’s article provided thought leadership and helped generate perceived momentum around the concept of an all big gun ship. The United States as well as Japan had budgeted for the construction of ships with 12 inch guns, but they were not due for completion until 1907. In the early part of the twentieth century, naval construction required public and political oversight as it was the single largest military expense and consumed vast resources. Ship construction at the time was a significant capital commitment of a nation’s budget and required legislative approval. Even today, the most powerful navy in the world has publicly available ship construction plan. This post is a rehash of a post I wrote in 2007. I was inspired to use it after reading the Saturday Essay in the WSJ about the US Navy.
On October 1, 1906, H.M.S. Dreadnaught slipped into the English Channel, one year and one day from the laying of her keel. Over the next few days, she conducted high-speed runs in excess of 21 knots displaying the power of her steam turbine engines, a first for a warship of her size (18,000 tons). Her ten 12-inch guns could engage targets at 10,000 yards. She was fast enough to outrun any ship her size and she was powerful enough to outgun any other ship of her class. Jane’s declared she was the equivalent of two or three of battleships of the designs that had preceded her. Dreadnaught was a lethal and brilliant combination of striking power, speed, reliability and armor that could choose to fight when, where and who she desired. In 1907, Dreadnaught became the flagship of English Home Fleet and assumed the responsibility of the guardian of Pax Britannia at the very zenith of the Empire and only six years after the death of Queen Victoria. When details of her design became public, it was apparent that this single ship hailed as a triumph by her designers, was in fact a colossal blunder in the eyes of many.
It took time for the full impact of Dreadnaught to be realized. Her combination of speed and striking power turned every ship in every navy, in every port of the world obsolete in 31 months. Critics called Dreadnaught a “piece of wanton and profligate ostentation” that “…morally scraped and labeled obsolete [the entire British Fleet] at the moment when it was at the zenith of its efficiency and not equal to two, but practically to all the other navies of the world combined.”
David Lloyd George, a future Prime Minister in 1916 succeeding Herbert Henry Asquith, said “We said, ‘Let there be dreadnaughts’ what for? We did not require them. Nobody was building them and if anyone had started building them, we, with our greater shipbuilding resources, could have built them faster then any country in the world.” In the end, the critics were wrong and the pioneers were correct. Reginald Bacon, Dreadnaught’s first captain said to the critics “knowing as we did that Dreadnaught was the best type to build, should we knowingly have built the second-best type of ship? What would have been the verdict of the country [i.e. England] if Germany…had built the Dreadnaught? What would have been the verdict of the country if a subsequent inquiry had elicited the fact that those responsible at the Admiralty for the safety of the nation had deliberately recommended the building of second-class ships?”
The history of this era is beautifully composed by Robert Massie in two books: Dreadnaught and Castles of Steel. I generously borrowed from Massie’s first book Dreadnaught (pages 468-489) to compose the first three paragraphs. If you enjoy naval history, The Grand Fleet and Battlecruisers are two cherished books in my library that complement Massie’s books. I began this post with the history of the Dreadnaught because of the many parallels the history of naval innovation and technology have with networking.
Over the course of that past couple of years the intellectuals and thought leaders have been calling for change. See Hamilton here, Gourlay here and even the Pax Britannia of networking states that networks must change. I draw one conclusion from the observations I see and that is we are still waiting on the change that must happen. We are still waiting on Dreadnaught. I know some companies think they have built a new Dreadnaught for the data center, but in reality it does not outclass any other solution and it does not hopelessly obsolete any of the existing solutions. The point of my Tubthumping post was we are still waiting on someone to build the best type of network for a new era. Merchant silicon does not equal a new era. Big fat switches in the core do not equal a new era. The 10G and 40G and 100G server eras will be enabled by different network architecture that when it reveals itself will be as obvious as Dreadnaught was to the navies of the world. I will know it when I see it, but I know it is not a white box switch with merchant silicon running some homogenized software stack.
* It is all about the network stupid, because it is all about compute. *
** Comments are always welcome in the comments section or in private. **