a16z Podcast

A16Z Podcast — The Power of University Open Source and the Future of Systems Software, Part II

This is Part II of an episode about UC Berkeley's AMPLab. You can read Part I, about the founding of AMPLab, its operating principles, vision for the future, and more, here

This part focuses on Haoyuan Li, founder of Tachyon Nexus, a company birthed at AMPLab. Tachyon Nexus is a memory-centric distributed storage company.

What does that mean? Well, essentially, one of the fundamental pieces of software for any type of computing is the "file system," which tracks and manages the data being stored (it's analogous to a real-world filing cabinet). Until recently, file system software has been oriented around the way the world works today, with most data stored on hard disks or solid-state drives. Memory-centric storage is built around the idea that memory (RAM), which can be accessed faster than drives, is coming down in price to the point where much data will be stored in memory rather than in slower storage. 

Tachyon is a piece of software that is built around the idea that data (particularly "big data", distributed across a number of servers) will live in memory. It's a file system that is built from the ground up around the principle. As you might expect, it is way, way better than older filesystems at managing distributed memory-based systems.  

Tachyon Nexus, the company, was founded by Haoyuan Li ("HY"), the co-inventor and developer lead of Tachyon (the open source software), which he helped build at AMPLab. A16z's Michael Copeland talks with HY, along with a16z General Partner Peter Levine, about the company's past, present, and future. 

Tachyon's start at AMPLab + A16Z's storage investment thesis

HY was personally very interested in storage, and AMPLab had two other successful projects—Apache Mesos and Apache Spark—at different layers in the systems stack. At the time, the storage piece was still missing.

According to Levine, the idea was very attractive as an investment because of some of his long-held beliefs about storage, starting with the idea that memory will replace spinning disks and CPUs, due to cheaper and cheaper memory (driven by the mobile phone supply chain). Given this assumption, we'll need a filesystem and architecture that supports this new type of computing, as computers and OS code to-date has been written around the assumption that there's a memory hierarchy that goes from fast/expensive to cheap/slow.

Tachyon maps into that future perfectly. The grand view is that memory flattens and Tachyon becomes the in-memory filesystem for all computing, but even if that doesn't happen, it's still a great filesystem for big data and other applications. 

The idea that memory will "flatten" is also somewhat heretical, which Levine believes makes it an even more attractive early-stage investment. One of his mental models is "what would happen if this very popular thing doesn't exist anymore," and Tachyon fits into the version of the future where disks are no longer used for storage.

How AMPLab creates the ecosystem for big data infrastructure ideas

Levine notes that if you take Tachyon, Spark, and Mesos (in architectural order), AMPLab has created a full stack for the next generation of big data infrastructure. 

HY says that the lab removes the pressure to publish that exists in many graduate positions, which allows researchers to focus on the long-term. The diversity of interests in the Lab provides a lot of different people to bounce ideas off of, including professors (who don't have offices, and sit in the cubicles with the students). The Lab also allows for ready communication with industry sponsors, which helps guide development. 

What makes successful entrepreneurs

Levine says that a deep understanding of their space and the passion to go after it are critical, but equally important is a willingness to learn all the things the entrepreneur doesn't know. HY is a great example—he's very passionate, understands his area better than anyone on the planet, but needs to learn a lot of little things to run a company. A16z looks for someone who will be coachable, because there is a blueprint on how to build a company—from building out a sales organization, to hiring a product manager, to hiring a CFO, to marketing. A lot of folks don't want to be coached, saying, "I'm just going to go do my shit, leave me alone." And you probably can't build a company if the only thing you can do is technology.

HY's development as entrepreneur

HY believes most of the necessary skills to run a company can be picked up as you go along (except for, notably, building a "production-level system"). Hiring is a representative example of how to improve—in the beginning the company didn't have a process, and then created a process, and now is modifying and improving the process incrementally. Prioritization is the key to not being a "bottleneck" at the company, in addition to hiring a great team that can move forward quickly without HY's input. That said, in some sense, he admits the CEO is always a bottleneck, since he has infinite things to do. 

Levine notes how incredibly difficult it is to transition from individual contributor to manager/leader. As an individual, you can do everything and hack your code. When you become a manager, you have to do that through other people, and that transition is non-intuitive and very difficult. As a leader, most of your time ought to be spent hiring and coaching new people, and that's completely counterintuitive—if you don't hire people you'll continue to be the bottleneck. It's particularly difficult if you've written the code and know every line. 

Tachyon Nexus's future challenges

For HY, the next hurdle is continuing to hire the best people, which is hard and takes time. 

For Levine, the company's next hurdle is figuring out how to commercialize the open source project—deciding what's paid for and what's free (if anything). Without a business model early-on, potential partners and customers don't know what they are planning to charge for. The longer this goes on, the harder it is to start charging (things that have been free for a year can't be suddenly not-free). It's important to lead with crumbs, pre-conditioning the community to understand what the business model is going to be. 

Knowing what he knows today, would HY have started the company?

HY: Absolutely.

Levine: He'll let you know in five years.