Pulling together – what converged infrastructure means for data centres

By John Leonard
22 May 2014 View Comments
rowers-pulling-together

Much is expected of the converged infarastructure market over the next few years. Analysts estimate an annual growth rate of 30-60 per cent between now and 2017 as sales of traditional servers fall and more sophisticated integrated solutions take their place. 

Converged infrastructure products typically pack compute, storage and networking into one box. Most of the big name vendors associated with the data centre offer converged infrastructure, including Dell Active Systems, HP CI, NetApp FlexPod and Oracle Exadata appliances. Some integrate their own products into a converged package, as with IBM’s PureSystems, while others have forged alliances in order to do so, such as VCE, the collaboration between VMware, Cisco and EMC that produces the Vblock appliance.

Further reading

Converged infrastructure has spawned a sub-category too. Hyper-converged systems typically consist of storage and compute infrastructure with a hypervisor built in, allowing storage and computing loads to be managed through one control system. Vendors include Nutanix, SimpliVity and Scale Computing.

On the face of it at least, converged infrastructure is one answer to the great enemy of the data centre – complexity. By ensuring compatibility, tight integration and optimised connectivity between the components a great deal of the pain associated with deployment, upgrading and maintenance of data centre infrastructure can be removed.

By breaking down the walls of the storage, networking and server silos these separate disciplines can be pulled together, allowing maintenance, operation and administration tasks to become more streamlined.

Having components working closely together will tend to make them more energy and space efficient, important considerations when fuel and real estate prices are high, environmental costs must be considered, and when data centre managers are under a constant pressure to increase capacity.

The standardisation inherent in converged platforms allows businesses to move more quickly to cope with growth in demand. Installation is a lot quicker too. Converged appliances can be specified, configured, tested and delivered for installation in days or weeks compared with the months or years required for a typical on-premise refresh.

And while hooking them into the data centre might not be quite the simple bolt-together process that some marketing literature might suggest, nevertheless it is far simpler and many times quicker than upgrading and integrating the individual components. And if things go wrong, there is only one phone number to call.

The ability to consolidate IT resources, automate provisioning and simplify management also makes converged infrastructure an attractive proposition when it comes to deploying private or hybrid cloud services.

More of the same

With such a cornucopia of riches on offer, with cloud increasing in importance and with big vendors, resellers and fast-rising start-ups all on board, surely UK data centre manager are rushing to ditch their separates and install shiny new boxes?

Computing surveyed almost 100 data centre operatives in medium to large UK organisations to find out about their plans. The survey revealed that data centres are hives of activity. In the next two years about half of the respondents plan to upgrade backup and disaster recovery systems, boost storage or increase their use of private cloud. A refresh or consolidation of server infrastructure was also on the cards for more than 40 per cent of respondents, with a similar number looking to upgrade their networks. One-quarter said they plan to move to an entirely new data centre (figure 1). 

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[Click on image to enlarge]

However, when it comes to the technologies being deployed to meet new challenges, most are still inclined to choose according to standard reference architectures with solutions sized to suit the project or applications involved.

Just 11 per cent said they have deployed converged infrastructure, with a further five per cent in the process of implementing it. Seventeen per cent of the respondents said they are evaluating the technology. That said, almost one-third expressed a desire to know more (figure 2).

9jun-fig2

While it may be moving towards the mainstream, converged infrastructure is still at the early-adopter stage, according to our survey. This is not too surprising. The technology is still relatively new, only really getting off the ground about five years ago. CIOs may be reluctant to stake what will be a considerable amount of money (not to mention their reputation) on a technology that has yet to become standard.

Such caution is sensible. Reading through blogs and comment threads, it would appear that integration between components can leave much to be desired, with the result that the promised reduction in complexity is not always realised. Others complain of unexpected costs around licensing and the provision of extra capacity.

Like most fast-moving technologies, converged infrastructure is developing and improving all the time, so many will think it prudent to wait and see.

There may be other barriers too, resulting from the way budgets are allocated. Increasingly, technology costs are shared between IT and the department benefiting. Indeed the survey answers revealed an eclectic mix of approaches to budget allocation, with 18 per cent saying that budget responsibility is assigned on a project-by-project basis and a similar number (15%) reporting IT budgets devolved down to the company, branch or even departmental level.

Of course, IT and business departments pulling together to tackle individual projects is to be welcomed. It is certainly better than the common situation in which poor communications and unilateral decision-making leads to failure. However, it’s not hard to see how sharing responsibilities in a project-based approach could result in more strategic decisions, such as major infrastructure changes, being kicked down the road.

Asked about the effect that cross-departmental funding and decision making is having on data centre projects, the majority of respondents chose the “middling” option: “50/50 – it’s good to have the extra input, but continual requests for changes make the task more time consuming”.

So data centre staff are kept busy deploying and supporting new applications while at the same time coping with the usual hardware upgrades, software patching and the need to keep older systems running. Some, of course, will be very happy with the status quo and fearful of the impact that the merging of traditional skillsets could have on their jobs.

However, simplification, consolidation and automation are powerful drivers of change. There is no question that reducing the burden of the planning, management and procurement processes and considerably shortening deployment timescales will bring converged infrastructure to the fore in time.

@_JohnLeonard

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