Managing Leaders, Or Why Pat Gelsinger Is Awesome

In case you missed it, Intel CEO Bob Swan is stepping down from his role effective February 15 and will be replaced by current VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger. Gelsinger was the former CTO at Intel for a number of years before leaving to run EMC and VMware. His return is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal past few months for the chip giant.

Why is Gelsinger’s return such a cause for celebration? The analysts that have been interviewed say that Intel has been in need of a technical leader for a while now. Swan came from the office of the CFO to run Intel on an interim basis after the resignation of Brian Krzanich. The past year has been a rough one for Intel, with delays in their new smaller chip manufacturing process and competition heating up from long-time rival AMD but also from new threats like ARM being potentially sold to NVIDIA. It’s a challenging course for any company captain to sail. However, I think one key thing makes is nigh impossible for Swan.

Management Mentality

Swan is a manager. That’s not meant as a slight inasmuch as an accurate label. Managers are people that have things and look after them. Swan came from the financial side of the house where you have piles of resources and you do your best to account for them and justify their use. It’s Management 101. Managers make good CEOs for a variety of companies. They make sure that the moves are small and logical and will pay off in the future for the investors and eventually the workers as well. They are stewards first and foremost. When their background comes from something with inherent risk they are especially stewardly.

You know who else was a manager? John Sculley, the man who replaced Steve Jobs at Apple back in 1983. Sculley was seen as a moderating force to Jobs’ driving vision and sometimes reckless decision making skills. Sculley piloted the ship into calm waters at first but was ultimately sent packing because his decisions were starting to make less and less sense, such as exploring options to split Apple into separate companies and taking on IBM head-to-head on their turf.

Sculley was ousted and Jobs returned to Apple in 1993. It wasn’t easy at first but eventually the style of Jobs started producing results. Things like the iPod, iMac, and eventually the iPhone came from his vision. He’s a leader in that regard. Leaders are the ones that jump out and take risks to make big results. Leaders are people like John Kennedy that give a vision of going to the moon in a decade without the faintest idea how that might happen. Leadership is what drives companies.

Leaders, however, are a liability without managers. Leaders say “let’s go to the moon!” Managers sit down and figure out how to make that happen without breaking the budgets or losing too many people along the way. Managers are the grounded voices that guide leaders. Without someone telling a leader of the challenges to overcome they won’t see the roadblocks until the drive right into them.

Leaders without brakes on their vision have no reality to shape it. Every iMac has an Apple Lisa. Every iPod has the iPod Hi-Fi. Even the iPhone wasn’t the iPhone until the App Store came around against the original vision of Apple’s driving force. To put it another way, George Lucas is a visionary leader in filmmaking. However, when he was turned loose without management of his process we ended up with the messy prequel trilogy. Why was Empire Strikes Back such a good film? Because it had people like Lawrence Kasdan involved managing the process of Lucas creating art. They helped focus the drive of a leader and make the result something great.

Tech Leadership

Let’s bring this discussion back to Intel and Pat Gelsinger. I know he is the best person to lead Intel right now. I know that because Gelsinger is very much a tech leader. He has visions for how things need to be and he can see how to get there. He knows that reducing costs and reaving product lines at Intel isn’t going to make them a better company down the road no matter what the activist investors have to say on the matter. They may have wanted regime change when they petitioned the board back in December, but they may find the new king a bit harder to deal with.

Gelsinger is also a manager. Going from CTO to being COO at EMC and eventually CEO at VMware has tempered his technical chops. You can’t hope to run a company on crazy ideas and risky bets. Steve Jobs had people like Tim Cook in the background keeping him as grounded in reality as possible. Gelsinger picked up these skills in helming VMware and I think that’s going to pay off for him at Intel. Rather than running out to buy another company to augment capabilities that will never see the light of day, someone like him can see the direction that Intel needs to go and make it happen in a collected manner. No more FPGA acquisitions that never bear fruit. No more embarrassing sales of the mobile chip division because no one could capitalize on it.

Pat Gelsinger is the best kind of technical manager. I saw it in the one conversation I was involved in with him during an event. He stepped in to a talk between myself and a couple of analysts. He listened to them and to me and when he was asked for his opinion, he stopped for a moment to think. He asked a question to clarify and then gave his answer. That’s a tempered leader approach to things. He listened. He thought. He clarified. And then he made a decision. That means there is steel behind the fire. That means the driving factors of the decision-making process aren’t just “cool stuff” or “save as much money as we can”. What will happen is the fusion of the two that the company needs to stay relevant in a world that seems bent on passing it by.

Tom’s Take

I’ve worked for managers and I’ve worked for leaders. I don’t have a preference for one or the other. I’ve seen leaders sell half their assets to save their company. I’ve also seen them buy ridiculous stuff in an effort to build something that no one would buy. I’ve seen managers keep things calm in the middle of a chaotic mess. I’ve also seen them so wracked with indecision that the opportunities they needed to capitalize on sailed off into the sunset. If you want to be the best person to run a company as the CEO, whether it’s a hundred people or a hundred thousand, you should look to someone like Pat Gelsinger. He’s the best combination of a manager and leader that I’ve seen in a long time. In five years we will be talking about how he was the one to bring Intel back to the top of the mountain, both through his leadership and his management skills.

Short Take – The Present Future of the Net

A few random thoughts from ONS and Networking Field Day 15 this week:

  • Intel is really, really, really pushing their 5 generation (5G) wireless network. Note this is not Gen5 fibre channel or 5G 802.11 networking. This is the successor to LTE and capable of pushing a ridiculous amount of data to a very small handset. This is one of those “sure thing” technologies that is going to have a huge impact on our networks. Carriers and service providers are already trying to cope with the client rates we have now. What happens when they are two or three times faster?
  • PNDA has some huge potential for networking a data analytics. Their presentation had some of the most technical discussion during the event. They’re also the basis for a lot of other projects that are in the pipeline. Make sure you check them out. The project organizers suggest that you get started with the documentation and perhaps even help contribute some writing to get more people on board.
  • VMware hosted a dinner for us that had some pretty luminary speakers like Bruce Davie and James Watters. They talked about the journey from traditional networking to a new paradigm filled with microservices and intelligence in the application layer. While I think this is the golden standard that everyone is looking toward for the future, I also think there is still quite a bit of technical debt to unpack before we can get there.
  • Another fun thought kicking around: When we look at these new agile, paradigm shifting deployments, why are they always on new hardware? Would you see the similar improvement of existing processes on new hardware? What would these new processes look like on existing things? I think this one is worth investigating.

Intel’s Ticking Atom Bomb


It started somewhat innocently. Cisco released a field notice that there was an issue with some signal clocks on a range of their networking devices. This by itself was a huge issue. There had been rumblings about this issue for a few months. Some proactive replacement of affected devices to test things. Followed by panicked customer visits when the news broke on February 2nd. Cisco looked like they were about to get a black eye.

The big question that arose was whether or not this issue was specific to Cisco devices or if it was an issue that was much bigger. Some investigative work from enterprising folks like Tony Mattke (@tonhe) found that there was a spec document from Intel that listed a specific issue with the Intel Atom C2000 System on Chip (SoC) that caused it to fail to provide clock signal for onboard chips. The more digging that was done, the more dire this issue turned out to be.

Tick, Tick, Tick

Clock signaling is very important in modern electronics. It ensures that all the chips on the board are using the correct timing to process electronic impulses. If the clock signal starts drifting, you start getting “glitches” in the system. Those glitches are unpredictable results in the outputs. The further out of phase the clock drifts, the more unpredictable the results in the output. Clock signals are setup to keep things on task.

In this case, when the Intel Atom C2000 is installed in a system, it’s providing the clock signal for the Low Pin Count bus. This is the bus that tends to contain simple connections, like serial ports or console ports. But, one of the other things that often connects to the LPC bus is the boot ROM for a system. If the C2000 dies, it denies access to the boot ROM of the device. That’s why the problem is usually not apparent until the device reboots. The boot ROM wouldn’t be accessed otherwise.

The other problem here is that the issue doesn’t have any telltale markers. It just happens one day. When the C2000 dies, it’s gone for good. Intel is working on a way to try and fix the chips already in the wild, but even they are admitting that the fix is only temporary and the real solution is getting new chips and boards in place. Cisco has already embarked on a replacement program, as have the numerous other manufacturers that have used the C2000 chips.

Laying Landmines

This does cast some shade on the future of merchant silicon usage in devices. Back when this appeared to be a simple issue with Cisco devices only, people were irritated at Cisco’s insistence that custom fabricated silicon was the way to go. But now that the real culprit appears to be Intel, it should give switch vendors pause about standardizing on a specific platform.

What if this issue had been present in Broadcom Trident or Tomahawk chips? What if a component of OCP or Wedge had a hidden fault? The larger the install base of a particular chip, the more impactful the outage could be. Imagine a huge Internet of Things (IoT) deployment that relies on a weak link in the chain that can fail at any point and brick the device in question. The recall and replacement costs would be astronomical. Even for Cisco in this case, replacing the subset of affected devices is going to be very costly.

Tom’s Take

Reliance on single components for these kinds of applications is a huge risk, but it’s also good business. Intel provides the C2000 at low cost because it’s designed to be widely deployed. Just like any of the other components you’d find at a Fry’s or old Radio Shack, they are mass produced to serve a purpose. As we move more toward merchant silicon and whitebox as the starting point for deliver value in switching, we have to realize that we need to stay on top of the components themselves instead of just taking the hardware for granted. Because one little glitch here and there can lead to a lot of trouble down the road. And the clock is always ticking on things like this.

Intel and the Network Arms Race


Networking is undergoing a huge transformation. Software is surely a huge driver for enabling technology to grow by leaps and bounds and increase functionality. But the hardware underneath is growing just as much. We don’t seem to notice as much because the port speeds we deal with on a regular basis haven’t gotten much faster than the specs we read about years go. But the chips behind the ports are where the real action is right now.

Fueling The Engines Of Forwarding

Intel has jumped into networking with both feet and is looking to land on someone. Their work on the Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK) is helping developers write code that is highly portable across CPU architecture. We used to deal with specific microprocessors in unique configurations. A good example is Dynamips.

Most everyone is familiar with this program or the projects that spawned, Dynagen and GNS3. Dynamips worked at first because it emulated the MIPS processor found in Cisco 7200 routers. It just happened that the software used the same code for those routers all the way up to the first releases of the 15.x train. Dynamips allowed for the emulation of Cisco router software but it was very, very slow. It almost didn’t allow for packets to be processed. And most of the advanced switching features didn’t work at all thanks to ASICs.

Running networking code on generic x86 processors doesn’t provide the kinds of performance that you need in a network switching millions of packets per second. That’s why DPDK is helping developers accelerate their network packet forward to approach the levels of custom ASICs. This means that a company could write software for a switch using Intel CPUs as the base of the system and expect to get good performance out of it.

Not only can you write code that’s almost as good as the custom stuff network vendors are creating, but you can also have a relative assurance that the code will be portable. Look at the pfSense project. It can run on some very basic hardware. But the same code can also run on a Xeon if you happen to have one of those lying around. That performance boost means a lot more packet switching and processing. No modifications to the code needed. That’s a powerful way to make sure that your operating system doesn’t need radical modifications to work across a variety of platforms, from SMB and ROBO all the way to an enterprise core device.

Fighting The Good Fight

The other reason behind Intel’s drive to get DPDK to everyone is to fight off the advances of Broadcom. It used to be that the term merchant silicon meant using off-the-shelf parts instead of rolling your own chips. Now, it means “anything made by Broadcom that we bought instead of making”. Look at your favorite switching vendor and the odds are better than average that the chipset inside their most popular switches is a Broadcom Trident, Trident 2, or even a Tomahawk. Yes, even the Cisco Nexus 9000 runs on Broadcom.

Broadcom is working their way to the position of arms dealer to the networking world. It soon won’t matter what switch wins because they will all be the same. That’s part of the reason for the major differentiation in software recently. If you have the same engine powering all the switches, your performance is limited by that engine. You also have to find a way to make yourself stand out when everything on the market has the exact same packet forwarding specs.

Intel knows how powerful it is to become the arms dealer in a market. They own the desktop, laptop, and server market space. Their only real competition is AMD, and one could be forgiven for arguing that the only reason AMD hasn’t gone under yet is through a combination of video card sales and Intel making sure they won’t get in trouble for having a monopoly. But Intel also knows what it feels like to miss the boat on a chip transition. Intel missed the mobile device market, which is now ruled by ARM and custom SoC manufacturing. Intel needs to pull off a win in the networking space with DPDK to ensure that the switches running in the data center tomorrow are powered by x86, not Broadcom.

Tom’s Take

Intel’s on the right track to make some gains in networking. Their new Xeon chips with lots and lots of cores can do parallel processing of workloads. Their contributions to CoreOS will help the accelerate the adoption of containers, which are becoming a standard part of development. But the real value for Intel is helping developers create portable networking code that can be deployed on a variety of devices. That enables all kinds of new things to come, from system scaling to cloud deployment and beyond.