A main goal of converged infrastructure is that when compared to legacy environments, the new solution should deliver a simplified operating model. Convergence is about much more than bundling or architecting a solution; the efficiency of the entire lifecycle of the full value chain needs to be addressed. The distribution channel is a critical player in the adoption and economic feasibility of converged solutions.
Systems Integrators (SIs) and value-added resellers (VARs) have been building solutions of stack components based on customer requirements for years; this has led to some of the heterogeneous mess that exists in most data centers today. While it is good to deliver what the end-user wants, there is a correlation between variability and lifecycle cost of a solution. The more tightly controlled a configuration is, the simpler it makes the process of choosing, delivering, moving into production, operating, and upgrading the solution. While the goal of simplified solutions makes sense, there is a potential disruption to where value and revenue is added through the chain of distribution. This is something that VCE struggled with during its first year when it was sorting out who did manufacturing (moved from the partners to VCE) and if it would be a service provider (VCE does not deliver services, only Vblocks). VCE now sells over 75% of its sales through the channel.
These are very early days for converged solutions, as Dave Vellante notes, in 2011 only 6% of WW Hardware is either a reference architecture or single SKU solution. It is a given that customers will take time to change buying habits; it is also true that it takes the channel time to retrain the sales and support teams that have the same siloed mindset as end-users. There are also many channel partners that have created solutions and playbooks that they feel are superior to converged solutions from the vendors. The vendor community should have a collaborative feedback loop with the channel to improve offerings. Cisco’s convergence solutions (with EMC/VCE and NetApp) found excellent traction with channel partners that built out new data center practices specifically for these new solutions - with new teams focused on convergence to help create new revenue streams outside of networking. The vendor community should be working for additional ways to engage the channels on initiatives such as virtualization as a driver for adopting converged architectures.
Like most early markets, it is common to oversimplify the competitive landscape. While all of the major storage players (EMC, NetApp, HP, IBM, Dell and HDS) are diving into the battle for convergence, it is still rare that converged solutions are competing against each other. The storage market has been highly competitive and fragmented for decades, there are different market segments and use cases that have allowed a number of solutions to flourish. Convergence of storage, networking, compute and management through the channel has a goal of reducing complexity, but overall is not likely to reduce the flexibility of choices in the marketplace.
Action Item: Users must be sure that the channel partners that they choose are properly equipped to not only sell and support converged infrastructure, but to be a partner in operational transformation. Adoption of convergence should free up budget and staff of both the channel and end-users to focus on higher value activities as the basics are pre-architected, pre-built or automated.
Footnotes: Drawing Converged Infrastructure Boundaries