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Short-Take: Jeff Bonwick Leaves Oracle after Two Decades

September 29, 2010

Jeff Bonwick’s last day at Oracle may be September 30, 2010 after two decades with Sun, but his contributions to ZFS and Solaris will live on through Oracle and open source storage for decades to come. In 2007, Bill Moore, Jeff Bonwick (co-founders of ZFS) and Pawel Jakub Dawidek (ported ZFS to FreeBSD) were interviewed by David Brown for the Association for Computing Machinery and discussed the future of file systems. The discussion gave good insights into the visionary thinking behind ZFS and how the designers set out to solve problems that would plague future storage systems.

One thing that has changed, as Bill already mentioned, is that the error rates have remained constant, yet the amount of data and the I/O bandwidths have gone up tremendously. Back when we added large file support to Solaris 2.6, creating a one-terabyte file was a big deal. It took a week and an awful lot of disks to create this file.

Now for comparison, take a look at, say, Greenplum’s database software, which is based on Solaris and ZFS. Greenplum has created a data-warehousing appliance consisting of a rack of 10 Thumpers (SunFire x4500s). They can scan data at a rate of one terabyte per minute. That’s a whole different deal. Now if you’re getting an uncorrectable error occurring once every 10 to 20 terabytes, that’s once every 10 to 20 minutes—which is pretty bad, actually.

- Jeff Bonwick, ACM Queue, November, 2007

But it’s quotes like this from Jeff’s blog in 2007 that really resonate with my experience:

Custom interconnects can’t keep up with Ethernet.  In the time that Fibre Channel went from 1Gb to 4Gb — a factor of 4 — Ethernet went from 10Mb to 10Gb — a factor of 1000.  That SAN is just slowing you down.

Today’s world of array products running custom firmware on custom RAID controllers on a Fibre Channel SAN is in for massive disruption. It will be replaced by intelligent storage servers, built from commodity hardware, running an open operating system, speaking over the real network.

- Jeff Bonwick, Sun Blog, April 2007

My old business partner, Craig White, philosopher and network architect at BT let me in on that secret back in the late 90′s. At the time I was spreading Ethernet across a small city while Craig was off to Level3 – spreading gigabit Ethernet across entire continents. He made it clear to me that Ethernet – in its simplicity and utility – was like the loyal mutt that never let you down and always rose to meet a fight. Betting against Ethernet’s domination as an interconnect was like betting against the house: ultimately a losing proposition. While there will always be room for exotic interconnects, the remaining 95% of the market will look to Ethernet. Lookup “ubiquity” in the dictionary – it’s right there next to Ethernet, and it’s come a long way since it first appeared on Bob Metcalf’s napkin in ’73.

Looking back at Jeff’s Sun blog, it’s pretty clear that Sun’s “near-death experience” had the same profound change on the his thinking; and perhaps that change made him ultimately incompatible with the Oracle culture. I doubt a culture that embraces the voracious acquisition and marketing posture of former HP CEO Mark Hurd would likewise embrace the unknown risk and intangible reward framework of openness.

In each case, asking the question with a truly open mind changed the answer.  We killed our more-of-the-same SPARC roadmap and went multi-core, multi-thread, and low-power instead.  We started building AMD and Intel systems.  We launched a wave of innovation in Solaris (DTrace, ZFS, zones, FMA, SMF, FireEngine, CrossBow) and open-sourced all of it.  We started supporting Linux and Windows.  And most recently, we open-sourced Java.  In short, we changed just about everything.  Including, over time, the culture.

Still, there was no guarantee that open-sourcing Solaris would change anything.  It’s that same nagging fear you have the first time you throw a party: what if nobody comes?  But in fact, it changed everything: the level of interest, the rate of adoption, the pace of communication.  Most significantly, it changed the way we do development.  It’s not just the code that’s open, but the entire development process.  And that, in turn, is attracting developers and ISVs whom we couldn’t even have spoken to a few years ago.  The openness permits us to have the conversation; the technology makes the conversation interesting.

- Jeff Bonwick, Sun blog, April 2007

This lesson, I fear, cannot be unlearned, and perhaps that’s a good thing. There’s an side to an engineer’s creation that goes way beyond profit and loss, schedules and deadlines, or success and failure. This side probably fits better in the subjective realm of the arts than the objective realm of engineering and capitalism. It’s where inspiration and disruptive ideas abide. Reading Bonwick’s “fairwell” posting, it’s clear to see that the inspirational road ahead has more allure than recidivism at Oracle. I’ll leave it in his words:

For me, it’s time to try the Next Big Thing. Something I haven’t fully fleshed out yet. Something I don’t fully understand yet. Something way outside my comfort zone. Something I might fail at. Everything worth doing begins that way. I’ll let you know how it goes.

- Jeff Bonwick, Sun blog, September 2010

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3 comments

  1. Note: Bill Moore is now a member of Nexenta Systems’ Advisory board.


  2. [...] Sun engineering tribes. Some of the high profile leavers were James Gosling (father of Java) and Jeff Bonwick (father of RAID-Z and led the ZFS development team in Sun). And there were many top talents exodus [...]


  3. [...] Sun engineering tribes. Some of the high profile leavers were James Gosling (father of Java) and Jeff Bonwick (father of RAID-Z and led the ZFS development team in Sun). And there were many top talents exodus [...]



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