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Jacob Smith, CMO at Packet
Episode 2 - May 15, 2019 - 28:46 · Talk

Jacob Smith from Packet on running an infrastructure product and ARM, wireless and hardware as a part of developer stack

Featuring Jacob Smith, CMO at Packet
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We’re chatting with Jacob Smith, CMO at Packet, about running a bare-metal cloud & edge computing infrastructure business.

Jacob gives a great insight into how the future of software infrastructure might look like and talks about the various hats one has to wear when running a successful company.

Watch this Episode on Youtube

Full transcription below.

Darko [00:00:02] Semaphore Uncut is a show where we talk about developer tools and the people behind those. With us today we have Jacob Smith from Packet. Hi welcome – it’s great to have you on the show.

Jacob [00:00:14] Hi Darko. Thanks for inviting me. Great to be here.

Darko [00:00:17] We’re doing it live. If you have any questions, if you have trouble seeing or hearing us, please let us know in the comments. Jacob feel free to go for it and introduce yourself.

Jacob [00:00:33] Thank you for doing the usual thing and change the schedule a few times right. Yeah, it’s busy days for everyone but it’s great to be here. A little bit about me so as you said I’m with Packet. I’m a co-founder and we started the company about four and a half years ago. As part of that journey, I’d got to wear all the hats right. I have a Packet hat today but at the beginning you know it was me and my brother we started the company together. He had a background in infrastructure. I had a background in marketing. As part of that, I wore a lot of hats – helped on the product side for a long time, in the beginning, even running the product team for a while and then moved closer to my home base of customer success and marketing. Right now I even direct sales and alliances, so it’s one of those things where as a co-founder you get to do all the things and then you learn to delegate to people who are way better than you are which is a really exciting part of the journey right now.

Darko [00:01:32] Yeah. I can confirm that. So it’s like every year, year and a half maybe two years you kind of change your hat as you said and you have to learn something new.

Jacob [00:01:43] Yeah it’s really fun to do that. It’s a little hard because each year it’s a new company, sometimes every three months it’s a new company. Right. It’s been a lot of learning and a lot of excitement.

Darko [00:02:00] It’s something hard. But on the other hand that’s what makes it exciting. So you blink and then it’ll be 10 years, but it’s really fun because it will be a different company than it is now.

Jacob [00:02:13] That’s right. We earned all of our gray hair.

Darko [00:02:16] So maybe if we can just go a bit deeper. That looks like a great combination in the beginning to have someone who is very technical and on the other side someone who could understand customers and marketing. Can you share a bit about the journey through customer success and transitioning through those roles that you had.

Jacob [00:02:48] Yeah well it ties right into our founding story. So for anyone who does not know – Packet is generally known as a bare-metal public cloud. We like to describe ourselves a little differently. We’re in the business of automating fundamentally infrastructure. We happen right now to have three products one of which is a public cloud. We’re in 20 locations. We deliver a sort of you know easy to style experience but with bare metal and physical networks. That’s kind of our place in the market. We’re also offering on-premise software-only version and then an Edge model.

Either way, it’s the same experience and the same technology under the hood which is – we’re just really good at turning computers on and off. Right. It’s not rocket science here. I think that the backbone was really like “Why enter the cloud business in 2014/15?”. I mean it wasn’t like “I know we’ll go disrupt Amazon and Google and Microsoft. They should be vulnerable”. Now it’s really about this – thinking about the infrastructure you tend to think like 10 years ahead because it’s like building railroad tracks – it’s really slow.

Infrastructure in the cloud is just like infrastructure and there real world – there’s a lot of physical parts to it a lot of capital. This is really tying into my experience as you listen to the users and you look at the cycles of product and product/market fit. We saw that the public cloud really represented mass adoption of automation for IT for pretty cheap and big workloads, but pretty generic. What we saw coming next was the natural sort of specialized workload and with that the change in who the buyer was.

The buyer of generic compute that kind of does most things for you – it’s kind of like getting a free checking app at the bank. It’s pretty good, works for almost everyone, it’s easy to get – it’s there on every corner. And we thought that there would be sort of that wealth management, you know like that totally different than everyone else.

Understanding the customer and what they wanted and who they were is really key to why we started the company and how even farmed our product and our approach to everything. My partner and my brother is my twin brother so we know each other really well. He had about 15 years in the cloud infrastructure space so he knew all about infrastructure and what we tried to do is to think who is coming next and what do they need.

Darko [00:05:24] Yeah thanks for sharing all that. There is one thing I mentioned that made me remember Packet because just visiting the website and trying to use the service and all that, it had a very different look and feel. When you enter, when you need to get a bare metal instance.

I was mentioning before to call we had that journey from being purely bare metal and then we said: “OK maybe we should adopt something of the cloud goodness and it feels that we need that”. We went all the way, we used SoftLayer which is I think bought by IBM and kind of disappeared, at least in my eyes. Then AWS, then Kubernetes brought us to Google and we ended up using two public cloud providers for some workloads but having bare metal as the backbone of the workloads that really need to be efficient and cost-effective and all that. Just wanted to share that buying bare metal hardware in comparison to dealing with hosting providers were was a very different feeling.

Jacob [00:06:49] I think it’s about understanding and this is all about how your product is positioned. We’re all selling the same thing – we’re all selling computers. We’re all actually selling Intel technology, we’re just packaging it in different ways. So I think the key is if you think of IT as the old “cattle versus pets” thing. That’s a server – it’s dedicated to me, it’s mine, it’s particular, I like this I upgraded the RAM on it – it’s very much the IT experience.

Like you said SoftLayer innovated the data center enormously. They took IT and made it like super efficient and actually almost fun for an IT guy. If you’re thinking about a cloud buyer or developer – what matters more? Our best customers deploy 100 physical machines which is a lot of cores and a lot of RAM. I mean it’s great. One of my favorite users is Graham from NixOS and he has posted on Twitter about how much… Graham in course he deployed to get through it like a backlog of 30000 jobs for NixOS through the CLI. He likes the power of the server and he’s excited by being able to get the job done but he just destroyed them. There’s nothing special about them. They’re just servers, just like VMs. Then, of course, you start to design an experience that’s API-driven or that’s less about a downgrade, change this changed that, and it’s much more about “I’ll take another one, actually give me five”.

Darko [00:08:38] That’s exactly the experience the developer wants. I want to make mistakes and I want to destroy this and that’s the way of thinking. Generally in software whenever you do something, tomorrow you’re going to throw it all away or rewrite it. There is a cost to this time and with hardware, it usually meant “Okay I need to ask some people to do something with this physical server and then they really need to do something physical” and removing that barrier of being scared to do something with that physical server – an amazing thing.

Jacob [00:09:12] Yeah. That’s a pretty simple concept, but it’s hard to do. Physical hardware – it’s not smooth right. It has rough edges. Things are different between physical machines, between each machine. They do not always behave the way you want.

So our mission has always been to try to provide just the lowest level of abstraction e.g. like tooling so that you can deal programmatically with that. Instead of saying “Let’s abstract you so far that you can deal with it” we’re saying “Let’s give you tools to deal with that when it breaks itself”. When you change the kernel and you can’t get back in because “Whoops”. Right. Well, how do I help you deal with that? Because that’s a real thing. And the reason why we’re most excited about this, why hardware and why does it matter. It’s not religious for us it’s not because VMs are bad – VMs are great. That’s all good. It’s really because we see a world in which there’s a lot of hardware that makes a big difference in what we’re trying to do over the next ten years.

For trying to fly rockets to Mars or trying for taxis to drive themselves and we’re trying to talk to the wall instead of at our screen. We just are going to end up with a lot of hardware that kind of looks like our phone where you know you started designing this hardware around the software experience and you combine those two things. That means you’re just going to have… We as a community as an ecosystem of developers just have to get good at dealing with a lot of variety of hardware because it’ll make a difference to our use cases.

Darko [00:10:58] Now that’s a new thing that’s coming up in the last few years. There is one thing that keeps coming up and that’s the ARM is something that’s powerful for that. I know from different announcements that you guys have been making actually over the years that you have been using ARM before ARM even existed. So maybe you can shed some light on that. There was recently a discussion I think Linus Torvalds wrote something that maybe that ARM is not going to fly really before making it very close to developers – they need to keep it in their laptops and their hands and all that. I kind of disagree with some extent…

Jacob [00:12:04] So the question is why ARM and what’s it all about?

Darko [00:12:06] Yeah I think that’s it. At least our customer base and people that we are talking about are very close to the Internet and I would say that it’s still far away from us. Let’s say to put us in the group of you know web developers so maybe you can shed some light on that. Where do you see it’s going and why it’s so exciting.

Jacob [00:12:35] Yeah well we got into the ARM business really not because we thought there was some massive you know missing product in the data center market. We’re huge consumers and fans of Intel technology and I don’t see that it’s the reason to be excited about ARM. I do see it’s because of diversity.

So the reason we got involved in ARM was that we looked around for ecosystems that we thought would support a diverse hardware model in which you know what was it Tesla yesterday talking about their specialty chips that help them drive cars better than the video chips. Yeah. It’s their own chip but it’s probably (and I didn’t check) but I’m almost 100 percent sure that it’s probably an ARM licensee. And the reason why the ecosystem has some very interesting benefits – does it make sense for…

I can’t speak for any company but does it make sense for an Intel to go build a chip for Tesla’s cars. Maybe? But maybe not. The reason why we got into ARM is that we saw diversity, we saw the ecosystem of a thousand licensees and partners who will essentially build you anything from a set top box chip has no fan you know to a ninety-six core dual socket data center chip. Now not all ARM architecture ecosystem problems are real, but we thought that hardware getting more diverse meant that we need to enable developers to have that in the cloud. I think it’s absolutely important that it’s in your laptop like what Microsoft you know notebooks and stuff are doing with ARM is really critical.

Developer experience is good but it moves pretty quickly to the cloud. When it gets real it moves to the cloud and so that’s why we released an ARM server two and a half years ago. Since then more use cases have come out where it makes sense, there are certain ones around Android or around particular workloads where it’s like a really good. To be honest, we’re not religious – we don’t care. I mean I really don’t care if we’re gonna be working on RISC-V, I’d have Ariane in my data center right now if I could. Because mainly that to me is a developer or a customer choice and what we need to be good at is kind of automating anything no matter what it looks like. It could be an X86 Dell server and a data center or it could be a small ARM device on a telephone pole. It’s still a computer that you need to `terraform apply` and deal with and that’s sort of the that’s what we’re working on.

Darko [00:15:21] Now that you mentioned cell phone tower and all that in one chat that we had you mentioned 5G so ARM is something that I can somehow relate to. I do have it on my phone and so on. 5G and how that will influence how data centers are built and how all those devices are talking together is pretty much out of my depth. I know that you are very excited about so maybe you can teach us a bit.

Jacob [00:15:56] I’d be happy to. Yeah well I mean it’s a big buzzword right and we love buzzwords like edge and 5G or all that’s going to change the world. So let’s not start there. I think the most exciting thing about the wireless world right now is actually that there’s a chance for developers to change the shape of it over the next five years.

So 5G is obviously a major standard that’s going to need some technology it’s a long time and coming. It will begin to be in lots of places but that’s sort of aligning with a bunch of other trends which are… The main one being that software developers just keep eating down the stack. Right. So a couple of years ago it was crazy when Alex boldly told me he was going to start CoreOS and begin building a new operating system. I was like “What are you talking about?”. People are like “Oh I can probably do overlay networks better than they are now and I can probably start working on unikernels”. So just down, down, down and as you get down we’ve stretched you know, we’ve kind of automated through the stack and there’s one thing we haven’t touched at all.

What’s really owned by about 10 companies in the world is the wireless stack we all use all the time. Developers don’t get to deploy/touch/automate/control and use wireless. They get to do something up until the point where it’s wired. In the US we have things like CBRS which is called Citizens Broadband Radio Spectrum where it’s basically rentable spectrum. You can take 4G/5G spectrum allocation and use it for just this one mile. Think about a football stadium. We have a data center a small data center next to a football stadium outside of Boston. Well, it’s not very important except for when there are 80000 people there who want connected experiences and video and all these other things. So suddenly it’s like “Huh?”.

So what we’re seeing is that wireless is starting to get democratized for developers and I think that will be the most exciting thing that we haven’t talked about, over the next five or 10 years, is that wireless will just totally be a part of the developer stack just like any other part of networking. And that’s really cool. Now, 5G is causing some interesting trends. I think the biggest one is what I would lump into disaggregation. So basically 5G and any other advancement are creating that much more data. It’s just more data we’re all using more of it our cars are generating petabytes of it.

5G makes it very expensive in the current model to backhaul it and deal with it – bill it, route it. And so the first thing it’s doing it’s taking what I would say is the first edge use case is Telcos and Telcos are having to push their network out to where the people are. Instead of centralizing it in a few places – it’s just too expensive to move all the data. So they’re pushing it outwards and putting computers in every city and having it terminate and do it there.

I think that’s exactly what all other kinds of use cases around 5G do say “I want to be close to that data. What can I do with that data? Can I do store automation differently?”. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean a data center could be a few Raspberry Pis in the back of a Chick-fil-As. And so it’s just a matter of moving the compute and things closer, mainly because of cost but also because that’s where the experiences are. That’s what the people are.

Darko [00:19:34] So if I’m starting to understand this. If for instance, AWS has 20-30 data centers. So you’re essentially talking here about hundreds/thousands of data centers being very close to people like in every city?

Jacob [00:19:59] I don’t know the future, but the one that we’re planning for architecturally is millions of things and thousands of places. So that’s what we’re thinking. That’s because if you look far enough – if you can get a model together.

Think about IT closet ten years ago, we all had an IT closet in a building where we worked and that’s where you get the emails from right. That’s also where you ran a database and then we moved it all to the cloud. Now I’m just going to pretend that you could put parts of Zoom and parts of Slack in the IT closet again. Would that change what Zoom and Slack could do for you? Would it be better? Different? I don’t know. That’s actually not my job – that’s developers jobs to figure out but I think it would be different.

I think if we could do that then we would do what Chick-fil-A is doing in St… I’d got this localized data I want to do something to get better intelligence about my business and align my supply chain. I mean that’s IoT basically. Or I want to think about new experiences I can power with local GPUs – I don’t need a lot of them but just a few of them so I can use a camera to watch everyone who comes in and out of a building and understand is that person an Airbnb person or a tenant.

So this is I think the opportunity, whether it will be a data center that looks like what we know today or if it will be something much different, I think that’s yet to be determined. But I do think we’ll see a lot of computers and a lot more places and the current model is not suitable. The current model in the cloud is that we’ve put a lot of the same thing in a few places. You know 15 or 20 places around the world. And I think we’ll probably see the other challenge – how do I put a lot of different things in a lot of different places.

Darko [00:22:02] It’s a different scale and different approach with different industry but we saw a lot of challenges of that. Customers in Australia, talking to customers in Europe and data centers in the US and all that…

Jacob [00:22:18] The speed of light issues.

Darko [00:22:26] Yeah and what you mentioned at some point – at some scale you don’t see that. And then when you start having that other scale –  just a different class of problems hits you. And then you discover that the internet and the network is a very unreliable and very slow thing. Although you can watch 4K YouTube it’s not streamed from the other part of the world.

Jacob [00:22:50] It’s caching, that’s caching, right? I think it’s funny we named our company packet. Because it’s networking terminology and it’s the one thing you have to buy from a cloud providers network. You can not buy it. And yet it’s kind of like one of those things that we assume just works you know the architecture of the Internet – it’s actually really fragile in many ways. It’s like “Whoops I kind of announced your BGP section and routed everything through China. Sorry about that”. It’s kind of weird right?

I think the internet is going to go through an overall re-architecture. We push the architecture of 20 years ago pretty far, 25 years ago and we’ve changed enormous amounts in software, enormous amounts. I think that’s the cool thing is that hardware and networks are going to start to move at software speed. They’re going to start to be influenced by that velocity and they will have to change. That doesn’t mean it’s all going to be my way or someone else’s way. I think it’s going to be a lot of iteration.

Just like Kubernetes is all the rage now. And if you ask Dan Cohen it’s like a lifecycle. Five years from now it’ll be something else. That’s how it goes. We go through these waves and I think it’s just a little more complex of a challenge when you talk about infrastructure because it’s so expensive to deploy and to put it and market it and to put glass in the ground or fiber under the ocean. So there’s a little bit of a nuance there that we will have to go through together between you know the ecosystems to figure out how to get the best results.

Darko [00:24:32] Yeah it’s true – we as software developers, the physical world is so far from us and as the new generations are coming up maybe IoT will put them closer to hardware.

Jacob [00:24:43] Are you seeing that through your company? So people are asking you? I’m sure that they’re building four more kinds of devices, for IoT.

Darko [00:24:53] We know that we have iPhones for more than 10 years and all that but it was kind of a single thing. And as you were mentioning throughout this conversation that it’s many of those little and very diverse things. That seems to be picking up. People want to talk with different things and you know to test them and all those things.

Jacob [00:25:17] They’ve got to do it on CI. You know this is the thing. That’s I think a huge opportunity. We are working with our friends at Grafana recently on how can we bring cloud native metrics and monitoring to all the other stuff down below. Because at some point yes I need to know about my PD use and my switches and my BMCs and all these things. Right now it may be in a data center but what if it’s at a phone poll? What if that really-special-expensive-cool-does-the-thing-I-needed-to-do widget is not in your building?

There are all kinds of issues there and I think it’s supercool, but it all requires software and testing. So then how do you automate testing against a growing variety of hardware? I even just think about GPUs right. GPUs and accelerators and suddenly you have a whole another layer. And we’re starting to see… They’re releasing hardware every 12-18 months. I mean look at Google – they released an entire TPU hardware thing with software in like 18 months. So I think we’re going to see the challenges of that coming to software development where especially as we’re seeing it enterprises who say “Yes cool I’ll buy that but support it for 10 years”. Then we start to have this legacy in this broad variety –  we’re going to need to think about how we do that.

Darko [00:26:57] Maybe one final topic which is closer to the developers which we were mentioning, but this is not the territory that they are thinking about and seeing so I think that’s one of the reasons that this could be exciting for a lot of people. You mentioned Kubernetes and the way that it is changing the landscape and there is the multicloud thing or hypercloud. You mentioned AWS and they’re covering a territory which is you know IT-oriented and you being a very different company in that area. How do you see Kubernetes influencing that? Maybe changing how the light shines on the Packet and AWS and other providers.

Jacob [00:27:55] Yes. It’s certainly making a huge difference. I mean I was working on a blog post. Speaking of marketing right, I’m sure we’re all working on that next blog post right. But for me I was working on a blog post about “Whoops we forgot to build a managed Kubernetes service” and it’s true that we don’t and we won’t. And that’s not helping us. You know I’ve got customers who would say “Well I’d move everything over to you if you had a Manage Kubernetes Easy button”. And you know my answer and I think it’s presenting a challenge to us as a company, it’s testing values like “What are we trying to do here”.

Because for me – people build businesses whether their name is Red Hat or working at Google for GKE On-Prem, or their name is something that just started out yesterday. We’re not in the software business. We’re not in the “as a service” business. That’s what the ecosystem of really excellent software companies like Elastic and Grafana are in – that’s what they do. And so it’s presenting a challenge for us, but I think it’s okay we’re kind of working through it because in the end it makes everything more portable and provides I’d say that single kind of control plane that people are looking for whether they’re you know at Google or at Packet or On-Prem.

I don’t think we’re there yet. I think that there is still basically a reflex of Kubernetes ecosystem to assume primitives that you can’t take home with you: “Everything’s fine. You just need an object store. Everything’s fine you just need a really good load balancer”. And then suddenly I think as we’re pushing things into enterprises and I think that’s where it’s going. So in Telcos and Banks, a lot of people are saying “Yeah but I’ve got this problem in that I know I need to have staff in Geneva and there’s no cloud there and I need to bring all that myself”. So that the ecosystem I think is reacting to that and started to say “Just bring it as software” instead of assuming that it will always be there. Right. And that’s I think a big shift by Kubernetes and I think we’ll be on the other side of that in a very good way.

Darko [00:30:09] Kubernetes I would say in very early stages. As a data center operating system it’ll be around for a very long time because I think the world wanted something like that for the last 20 years but it was not around. Well, there’s still a lot of things to be built on top of that. I love the title of your blog post.

Jacob [00:30:47] I think that’s one of the big topics of the day obviously Open Source is going through our moment and as a cloud provider, you have an enormous advantage. I don’t judge the business models of any other cloud, I think it will all work out but I do think that you make a decision about are you in the software business and you just happen to own the real estate and the data centers and the hardware and the connectivity and everything. Or are you in the infrastructure business? For us, it’s really clear we’re in the infrastructure business.

We invite partners to be in the software business to build on top of us. Almost all of our customers are delivering a service, kind of like you are, right like to their users. That’s why we’ve decided “Hey you get to choose – do you want multiple tenancies? Do you want virtualization? Do you not want that?” and you’ll decide because you have opinions about that may matter to you. I think that’s an important part of who we are and hopefully, of course, we can build a great business with that in mind.

[00:31:45] It was a pleasure talking to you. If I maybe missed to ask something which you think is very important and you would like to share it?

[00:31:56] I think I know how to talk about a lot of things but mainly I just love that I’ve been… I didn’t tell my background but my training is not as a marketer or as a technologist. I was trained as a musician and my brother was as well. Funny enough he was a junior art grad and I just find  that the technology ecosystem right now is a really exciting place to be in and that everyone can come in with creativity. You can come in and say “I have a new way of doing things”.

It’s one of the most exciting things that we can do and so technology aside, I think it’s Tim Hockin said: “It’s an exciting time for boring infrastructure”. For me like a musician and my colleagues and everyone comes from a different background but they bring ideas and say “You know what, I think we could do that better. That would be cool.” That’s what’s so exciting to me about software as well: “You know what. I’ve got an idea about how that could work better”. That’s going to be really important for how this world works. If we want to do all the things we want to do and keep the planet healthy and figure it out, we’re gonna have to come up with new ideas. So that’s just an exciting part of being in the business – I feel very fortunate.

Darko [00:33:10] Yeah that’s where very exciting. Being able to you know welcome all the makers, people who want to make things and ship products that’s an exciting thing to be in. You know I love that part of this industry, that people from very diverse backgrounds can come in and contribute in very creative ways.  

Jacob [00:33:35] I think it’s generational too – we’re a generation of builders and makers and that’s why abstracting us away from some of the things is really intriguing to me. So what does it say “Build” right “build a better Internet”.

[00:33:47] OK great. It was a pleasure talking to. Thank you so much.

[00:33:53] We’ll see you online. See you. Bye!

Meet the host

Darko Fabijan

Darko, co-founder of Semaphore, enjoys breaking new ground and exploring tools and ideas that improve developer lives. He enjoys finding the best technical solutions with his engineering team at Semaphore. In his spare time, you’ll find him cooking, hiking and gardening indoors.