Article

Defining 'unified computing systems'

Mark Fontecchio
Abacus Data Exchange needed IT infrastructure with a small footprint that its team could easily manage: It chose a "unified computing system."

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"We had a limited amount of space," said Bryan Fuselier, the lead engineer for the Lafayette, La.-based broadband services provider. "We also didn't want multiple employees to handle multiple aspects, such as network administration, server administration and storage administration."

The term unified computing system has now entered the general IT lexicon, thanks largely to Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) announcement earlier this year. But what exactly is a unified computing system, how does it differ from previous IT architectures, and should end users seriously consider it?

What is a "unified computing system," anyway?
As the name implies, a UCS brings together many capabilities that typically reside in separate boxes.

A unified computing system brings together many capabilities that typically reside in separate boxes.
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"All it is is a system that provides the servers, the network, the storage, and the storage network all in one platform," said Marc Staimer, president of Beaverton, Ore.-based Dragon Slayer Consulting.

Bill Bradford, a senior systems administrator at a Houston energy services firm, agreed. "From my limited exposure, a unified computing system is just networking and computing equipment all from the same vendor, which has been highly integrated to work together well," he said.

"I guess the idea is that it is one that brings network, storage and computing resources together and managed as a single unit," added Scott Lowe, the virtualization team lead for ePlus Technology, an IT reseller based in Herndon, Va.

Recent incarnations of unified computing systems -- Cisco's UCS, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s BladeSystem Matrix, Liquid Computing's LiquidIQ and InteliCloud's 360 -- are generally speaking a blade chassis with servers and networking built in with storage either in the chassis or connected externally.

End-to-end visibility and functionality
Integrated computing, storage and networking could enable easier data center resource provisioning and management.

Fuselier, from Abacus, can now assign computing, networking, and storage resources all from one screen with a unified computing system from Liquid Computing.

What it really comes down to is one throat to choke.
Marc Staimer,
presidentDragon Slayer Consulting

"It has its own checks and balances involved," he said. "Normally, in the setup, there is a lot of trial and error until you get the desired effort to come out. In a controlled system, it handles that for you. It basically walks you through [the process], eliminating all those issues you normally have."

This packaging of IT resources to facilitate management has gained popularity. Large data center operators -- Microsoft, Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc., among them -- have their servers delivered by the rack or the trailer. Unified computing systems are a similar concept. End user receive servers, networking and storage in one box, with no need to connect them and make sure they get along.

"Because they're using server blade technology, you can say how many blades you want for storage and how much for streaming," said Vincent Hirth, the CEO of Flower Mound, Texas-based video streaming company Vircas. "It allows us to stream better. The better management you have, the faster you can deliver the video. You don't struggle with load balancing."

Staimer, a consultant at Dragon Slayer, added that a unified computing system brings certain service benefits."What it really comes down to is one throat to choke." So when servers, the network or storage go haywire, there is one vendor to call. That, he says, can help prevent the finger-pointing that often happens in support situations when a user has separate server, network and storage platforms.

The UCS downside: 'Marketecture'
Bradford, the systems administrator, doesn't see much benefit to the unified computing systems concept, unless users are fans of vendor lock-in.

"I don't see it being a real advantage, except to companies who would rather be able to procure their entire environment from a single vendor," he said. "For companies who have pre-existing network storage, network connectivity and virtualization environments, switching to Cisco's UCS would just be a pain and a money sink in my opinion."

Robert Crawford, a lead systems programmer and member of SearchDataCenter.com's advisory board, agreed, saying the benefits of integration can have negative side effects.

"The good news is with everything so integrated, virtualization can apply resources as needed and keep the hardware humming at a high level of utilization," he said. "The bad news is with everything so tightly integrated I wonder how a company could ever get back out of the UCS."

Staimer piled on, saying the unified computing systems out there now are light on technology and heavy on the sales pitch.

"It's not really a technology issue," he said. "This is a marketecture. You call one number, and you get help regardless. So it's really more about marketing than it is technology."

An x86 mainframe?
Analysts and users often comment that IT tends to go in circles. According to some, unified computing systems are just part of the loop.

"I don't have a lot of mainframe experience," Lowe said. "But from what I understand, the difference is that you're using x86 hardware. This architecture is like an x86 mainframe. It does start to look like what IBM was doing many years ago."

Crawford agreed, saying that the two technologies share many concepts. He said that UCS solves problems that mainframes fixed years ago, and that there is a recurring theme in IT of a vendor announcing "some fabulous innovation," such as virtualization, that's been on the mainframe for years.

"I grew up with the mainframe, so I laugh when I see it," Staimer added. "The longer you're in the business, the more you see the centralize-decentralize pendulum swing. Right now we're moving toward centralize."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Mark Fontecchio, News Writer. Also, check out our blogs: Data Center Facilities Pro, Mainframe Propeller Head, and Server Farming.


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