IT shops want more throats to choke

Cisco, Hewlett Packard and Oracle insist that IT shops are clamoring for unified computing and want to get their IT gear from one vendor. But IT pros tell a different story.

Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and other large IT providers insist that data center customers want to deal with fewer, bigger vendors for more of their IT needs. But many IT pros say this "one throat to choke" mantra is self-serving at best and often demonstrably false.

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Their response could be summed up this way: "Well, of course HP wants to sell me my servers, my switches, my routers, my storage. But why would I want to source all that from HP, if its storage and networking gear is not up to snuff? Cisco Systems is now, famously, in the server market, but why would I want to trust my data center to a newbie server provider? I want the best server, the best router, the best storage and they come from different vendors."

In fact, most IT pros say that the mere presence of multiple vendors in their shops ensures that they get better pricing and service from each.

The more throats the better for IT support, pricing
"I have found that to keep a vendor honest and hungry for your business, you should have some competition on-site," said an IT manager at a large New England medical center.

"When purchasing equipment, you should get quotes from different vendors and let the vendors know you are doing so. I never tell the vendors the exact dollar quote of their competition, but I do let them know whether their quote was higher."

To keep a vendor honest and hungry for your business, you should have some competition.
IT manager,
New England-area medical facility

As Oracle Corp. prepares to push high-end Sun-based appliances running the full Oracle software stack, the one-throat-to-choke message has revved up. One rationale given by Oracle President Charles Phillips is that customers will get better support and service if it comes from Oracle and not various integrators, ISVs and third parties. Last spring, the integration-is-better mantra also escalated when Cisco, then HP, launched their respective unified computing system initiatives.

As tech companies grow by acquisition, the one-throat-to-choke message will only get more deafening. But the real value in getting software or hardware from a single, behemoth company has yet to be proven.

One former IT consultant said he has seen direct evidence that sourcing more technology from fewer vendors can be exactly the wrong move. He noted the quality of support for his Veritas backup software, which was never great to begin with, got much worse after Veritas was acquired by Symantec. "I wanted more throats to choke," he said.

Of course the reaction to the one-throat mantra depends on which kind of IT pro is asked. Many CIOs love the idea of calling and managing one vendor from a billing and logistics standpoint. In the trenches, though, technicians often find the resulting support lacking.

One vendor: Many buyers
And the networking specialists at a given company may prefer to buy all their switches, routers and hubs from one vendor, while server buyers have their own preferences. And then there's the storage buyer. The idea of a one-vendor unified computing system assumes that all these constituencies can rally around one offering. That may not be the case.

Some see the emergence of a new, higher-level data center buyer where that decision would be concentrated. HP, for example, has floated the idea that a "super administrator" will emerge to handle new converged infrastructure buying decisions. This idea will undoubtedly meet resistance. Current server, networking and storage buyers may not take kindly to losing their prerogative.

One problem with unified systems is that they take many "environment choices out of IT hands," said Todd Knapp, the CEO of Envision Technology Advisors LLC, a Providence-based IT consultant and systems integrator.

And IT pros also note that the notion of unified computing might be fine when there is no legacy gear to deal with. Very few data centers replace all their servers, storage and networking gear at once. They opt for more modular purchases.

"The whole [unified] product line is positioned for net new deployments, it doesn't' really fit into existing infrastructures," Knapp said. "If you are building a new data center, it might be a good option."

Brian Denton, the CTO of the medical legal services company ExamWorks in Atlanta, is something of a poster child for Cisco Systems' Unified Computing System (UCS) pitch. He oversees the migration of disparate Dell, HP, Compaq and IBM x86 servers to blades on Cisco's UCS. Because ExamWorks has acquired other companies recently and already had 14 U.S. locations of its own, Denton needed to consolidate as much server and desktop infrastructure in one data center as he could.

"We wanted to run a lean and mean IT shop," Denton said. The company has 450 employees, and Denton said it needs only four IT staff people if headcount increases to 1,000.

So ExamWorks is virtualizing all 450 desktops using VMware View and running all its business applications, on Cisco UCS. The company has one chassis with three server blades, with Denton estimating a new blade needed for every 150 additional employees.

But in his case, this isn't really a one-throat-to-choke story because his reliance on VMware and NetApp don't make him feel locked into Cisco.

"If UCS doesn't make it in the marketplace, because I've already virtualized the servers, I can replace them with another blade offering," he said. "It's just that right now I think their story is more compelling."

Unified computing vs. VARs
Third-party systems integrators, value-added resellers (VARs) and consultants is another constituency threatened by the single-vendor data center. These channel players make their money by tying together equipment and software from different vendors to best suit a customer's needs. Sometimes they act as outsourced IT shops and these VARs are watching the converged infrastructure play with much interest and are already feeling the repercussions of growing tensions between erstwhile partners Cisco and HP.

One New England VAR executive said that in the past his company successfully sold solutions including HP servers and Cisco routers and EMC storage into many accounts, with the support of all vendors. Now, he gets pressure from each vendor -- especially HP -- to offer a one-vendor solution, and that support has waned.

"John Chambers decided to go to war, and I guess we're all along for the ride," said this VAR who declined to be named. As Cisco's CEO, Chambers decided to enter the data server market against HP, a decision HP CEO Mark Hurd has not taken well.

When pressed on the real value of single-vendor solutions, most of the big guys revert to their open-standards verbiage. While Cisco, HP, IBM, Oracle and other vendors, say their total solution is the best, they also swear that their adherence to open standards will continue to offer customer flexibility and choice. "You have to have industry-standard interfaces to external LANs, SANs, hypervisors and so on," said Gary Thome, the chief architect of HP's Infrastructure Software and Blades division.

But Thome also makes his plug about the value of converged infrastructure.

"The whole point is to help our customers get more efficient in their IT operations," he said. "Every customer with an infrastructure of any magnitude is struggling with sheer complexity: 'I've got to have one of everything but I've also got too many cables, too much power, too much space. I've got a physical sprawl problem but also a management sprawl problem.'" In Thome's view, converged hardware helps on all those counts.

VARs say no matter how big a given vendor is, it won't meet every customer's needs. Their view is that the VAR is closer to the customer account and better knows its needs and can advise on which vendor technology is best and then put together a solution from one or many vendors.

Another VAR, Mont Phelps, the CEO of NWN Corp. in Waltham, Mass., said VARs must tread a fine line with all vendor partners while continuing to stress its own value to customers.

Bridget Botelho and Mark Fontecchio contributed to this report.

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