Come with me if you want to do IT more efficiently
As I walked around the trade show floor at VMworld 2012 and interacted with vendors, I was struck by just how many vendors are selling products intended to make more efficient the chaos that can sometimes befall enterprise IT. From software vendors that provide orchestration solutions to vendors that help IT move to a “building block” approach to hardware, there is no shortage of options for CIOs to consider.
Here, I’m going to focus on some of the hardware solutions I’ve seen at VMworld 2012.
Skynet seems to be growing out of control
As one looks around the data center and at the IT landscape, it’s obvious that companies are throwing more and more hardware into the environment to meet ongoing challenges and to ensure that the business side of the house can operate as effectively as possible.
Today, at a minimum, many organizations have host servers and storage arrays. In addition, they have equipment--Ethernet or fiber channel switches, for example--connecting those hosts to the storage devices. This could include flash storage arrays to meet high performance storage needs.
Then, organizations continue to stack hardware for various additional purposes, such as replication, disaster recovery, deduplication and more. And that’s just in the primary data center.
Suffice it to say, although virtualization has simplified IT environments in many ways, it’s also added new levels of complexity as IT organizations continue having to add various hardware devices in order to satisfy growing needs.
Hasta la vista, hardware!
At VMworld 2012, three vendors aim to tame the hardware chaos. These vendors, Nutanix, Pivot3 and Simplivity, bring to IT departments single hardware devices that come with everything necessary to run complete environments. These players are sort of the “anti-Vblock” in a way. Whereas many of the big iron players are building pods that are also units of infrastructure, these pods still include traditional gear, including commodity servers, storage arrays, interconnecting networking equipment, and much more. Although some of these pods, such as Dell’s lower-end vStarts, are suitable for smaller environments, they still have a lot of moving parts to manage.
Salvation is at hand
How much easier would a data center be to manage if all of the hardware was identical? That’s the question answered by Nutanix and Pivot3 and, more recently, Simplivity. All three companies have created self-contained infrastructure building blocks that contain servers, hybrid storage, and network ports. In addition, vSphere itself is run on each of these devices rather than on a separate host.
Each of the vendors has created methods by which their individual devices are clustered, thus enabling hypervisor enterprise-grade features such as vMotion and DRS. Each solutions offers different features sets, but overall they provide a similar overarching service, which is to make it easier for IT departments to deploy virtual environments. Each of the vendors claims that its solutions end up costing less than building out massive environments.
If the cost claims are real -- and this is something I intend to analyze further -- I really like the approach. For CIOs, as more capacity is needed, it’s just a matter of buying another unit. The units are smaller than the pods (vStart, Vblock, etc.) available from other vendors, making it a more granular, simpler solution overall.
In other words, we’re seeing the rise of the simple machines intended to do the work of much more complex groups of discrete boxes. These kinds of products may enable CIOs to more easily plan for upgrades as new capacity is needed since little is in the way in terms of product planning.
We’ll be back… if the hardware and pricing fit
Obviously, a “one size fits all” type of box may not actually fit all. Individual resources -- processor, RAM and storage -- will necessarily differ between companies. While these kinds of devices do provide some flexibility in their configuration -- for example, the Nutanix product allows RAM scalability inside each box -- the whole point is making the hardware as generic as possible, so there is much less configurability than will be found in a traditional environment.
Further, the starting costs for such devices is not as low as one might hope. For organizations without very complex needs, continuing to go the traditional route may end up making more sense in the long run. That said, depending on discounts and other pricing factors, CIOs should do a side-by-side to determine which option -- all-in-one or traditional -- makes sense.
Action Item: We’re certainly entering the era of simplification, and with good reason. IT environments are complex beasts that require significant care and feeding. As organizations seek ways to divert funds to core business activities, IT departments need to become more streamlined and participate in the focus on the business. CIOs in the SMB and midmarket space should consider all-in-one infrastructure plays to determine whether they may make sense. While these devices are intended to meet as broad a range of activities as possible, they cannot meet all use cases. Careful planning will be required, but if they work as advertised, CIOs may find themselves with a much simpler, more affordable environment from a TCO perspective.