HP reloads for 'converged infrastructure' war with Cisco

HP and Cisco customers may get caught in the crossfire of the two vendors' converged infrastructure' skirmish.

As Hewlett-Packard ratchets up its catfight with Cisco Systems over converged infrastructure, some customers continue to resist the one-vendor data center pitch.

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Converged infrastructure combines server, networking and storage hardware to simplify data center infrastructure setup and functionality and to save energy. But for customers, this growing "convergence" among data center components may ultimately force them to drop their favored server or networking vendor and sacrifice best-of-breed products in exchange for promised simplicity

Hewlett-Packard Co. fired the latest shot in the converged infrastructure battle at its Technology Forum conference in Las Vegas with various additions, enhancements and services for its converged infrastructure product line: rackmount and bladed ProLiant server hardware and management software, Virtual Connect networking, and BladeSystem Matrix, which combines servers, networking and storage.

Weakness in the HP fabric?
HP and Cisco say that converged data center architecture is the future for enterprise data centers.

But in talking to HP customers, that future appears far off -- especially for those that run HP BladeSystem servers and Virtual Connect, a proprietary HP technology that includes 10 Gigabit Ethernet and I/O virtualization that can carry both network and storage traffic.

We have a lot of other things we want before we go out and spend $8,000 a piece on Virtual Connects.
Dan Morris, 
senior systems engineerWhiteWater West Industries

A new 24-port Virtual Connect FlexFabric is now standard on HP's ProLiant G7 server blades, and is a core tenet of the company's converged infrastructure. HP claims to have shipped more than 3 million ports of Virtual Connect, but not all HP customers can stomach the price tag.

Dan Morris, a senior systems engineer at WhiteWater West Industries, a water park manufacturer, said the new products sport nice features, such as the ability to limit speeds for applications and "to move stuff around with ease."

But "they aren't cheap and we have a lot of other things we want before we go out and spend $8,000 a piece on Virtual Connects."

Others tried Virtual Connect, and, after experiencing serious problems, yanked the technology.

"We kept on running into bugs and really strange behavior," said Stuart Radnidge, a virtualization architect at a worldwide financial services company, and blogger at vinternals.com. Eighteen months ago, after one "fairly bad production outage," the firm pull edthe plug on Virtual Connect, and replaced it with a traditional combination of Cisco Catalyst Blade 3120 and MDS 9124 Ethernet and Fibre Channel switches.

Bugs aside, VirtualConnect suffers from a bigger problem, Radnidge said. "Operationally, all the different firmware [in the stack] has to be aligned to have a fully supported stack," he said. That includes firmware for the blades themselves, the chassis, the out-of-band management, and Virtual Connect. "It makes it quite complex operationally."

HP vs. Cisco: Customers caught in the middle
When Cisco and HP began to battle after years of fruitful coexistence, their shared customers got caught in the squabble. Many customers are satisfied with the HP servers and Cisco networking gear they run and see no reason to change that alignment to suit a vendor land grab in their data centers.

Some shops, for example, use HP Virtual Connect as part of their data network, but will take a pass on converged storage and data networks because of the lack of a shared roadmap between the sparring suppliers, which parted ways after Cisco's entrance into the server market with its Unified Computing System, or UCS, last year

We're not looking to drop our network vendor or our server vendor.
Kent Altena,
technical engineer FBL Financial Group

"We had a perfect storm. We had an out-of-date SAN [storage area network] fabric; we perceived we needed some 10 Gig, and the cost differential between the [Cisco] Nexus [unified fabric platform] and regular 10 Gigabit line cards was marginal at best," said Kent Altena, the technical engineer at FBL Financial Group in West Des Moines, Iowa, which runs HP servers and Cisco networking gear. "We were looking at dropping the entire SAN [and replacing it with a converged FCoE network], but the impediment was that the HP chassis have no roadmap for interoperability [with Cisco Nexus]."

"We're not looking to drop our network vendor or our server vendor," Altena said. Instead, the firm decided to stick with separate Ethernet and SAN fabrics and upgraded to a new Cisco MDS Fibre Channel SAN environment and will revisit converged networking when it matures, he said.

Likewise, Radnidge's firm will stick with separate Fibre Channel and data networks for now. Converged infrastructure has a chance at the firm, but not at the expense of its networking vendor, he said.

"In most enterprises, it's not unusual to make a complete server hardware switch; it happens all the time," Radnidge said. "Internal engineering groups are geared up around a potential vendor switch of server hardware. But on the networking side, that never happens," he said. "It's just much less of a headache to switch out a server vendor."

Cisco is expected to announce enhancements to its own unified fabric offerings next week at Cisco Live, its annual user conference.

But HP is far from conceding this battle and has moved aggressively to leverage its commanding presence in servers.

"Let's be honest, there's a war going on," said Leigh Carpenter, a solutions architect manager for Nth Generation, a San Diego based IT consultancy and HP partner. HP's primary weapon in this war is its blades, "and 98% of them go out with Virtual Connect," she said.

Furthermore, HP is contending with Cisco in shared accounts by offering free-trial blade servers that just happen to be bundled with Virtual Connect.

"HP is good at playing the game -- giving away their blades into Cisco networking accounts to win the business," she said.

Shiny new power management software
Other than driving down Virtual Connect on to its blades, HP has also overhauled its ProLiant G7s with the latest versions of the AMD Opteron 6100 series and Intel Xeon 5600 and 7500 series processors, expanded memory footprints, and enhanced on-board management software.

In particular, users say the new Intelligent Power Device (IPD) for the ProLiant DL series rackmount servers is a welcome addition.

"It's awesome," said Matt Lavallee, the director of technology at MLS Property Information Network Inc., a real estate information services firm in Shrewsbury, Mass.

Building on top of intelligent power distribution units (PDUs) and power supplies in HP racks, plus HP Integrated Lights Out (ILO) and Insight Control software, IPD pipes information about how and where equipment is plugged into the power grid for Insight Manager and displays it in a topographical map. This helps remove confusion about what is plugged in where, and helps administrators determine whether a server is over capacity, power-wise.

As it stands, "the biggest problem with maintaining rigid diagrams [of server-to-power configurations] is that mistakes happen over time," Lavallee said. "Even though you're wired up, there's no way of really knowing that you're plugged into where you thought you were."

IDP will bring order to that chaos, Lavallee said, and provide automated labeling of infrastructure "to remove where a lot of human error comes in: manual processes."

Such automated management is the real battleground behind the converged hardware struggle, said Nth Generation's Carpenter.

"They're all fighting to manage things. … Look at Oracle, VMware, [HP] Insight Control, BMC, CA -- they're all after the management piece, because that's where there's real opportunity to get people to adopt a standard and own that management," Carpenter said.

Data center pros are "desperate for a one-window view [of what's going on in their data centers]," she said. And most of them have one set of tools monitoring one thing, another monitoring others and that leads to bottlenecks and gaps in coverage.

"If a user says his app is slow, the apps person will point to the database person, who will point to the networking people, and you still don't know what's wrong. You can't tell the end user why this app is going slow, and gone are the days when people can throw hardware at things to fix them," she said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at abarrett@techtarget.com, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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