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There's a whole lotta shakin' goin' on in converged infrastructure

With sales sagging, legacy hardware suppliers are scurrying to form partnerships with a new generation of converged infrastructure vendors. But will these newly minted converged systems convince IT to open up the purse strings?

As the fortunes of legacy hardware vendors slide, those who have cobbled together pricey converged systems are wooing newcomers with sleeker integrated systems.

Dell recently agreed to deliver a suite of converged infrastructure (CI) appliances fueled by Nutanix' Web-scale technology. Nutanix next week will add a high-end 8000 Series line designed to tackle the largest applications. Cisco has vowed to embrace software-defined networking (SDN) in response to customer demands for cheaper, software-based CI products, while VMware will unveil a CI product considered by some as the successor to its costly VCE offering developed with hardware partners Cisco and EMC.

Focus intensifies on CI software

Some think converged architectures composed of new generation software and legacy hardware keep costs down, and reliability and technical support levels up.

VMware doesn't want to be known as a hardware company, they are a software company with partners.
Dana Gardnerprincipal analyst, InterArbor Solutions

"My IT budget isn't growing as fast as it used to, but pressure to handle cloud and data growth and contribute to the bottom line of our overall business is the same," said one IT professional with a large manufacturing company in St. Paul, Minn. "So, a converged solution that simplifies [the implementation process] and economically satisfies the cloud and data requirements is something I am interested in."

For IT shops managing apps in house, CI products are undergoing a huge shift that will continue for the next few years, said Howard Ting, senior vice president of product management for Nutanix, based in San Jose, Calif. "Small companies are lining up partners to get into enterprises, and there is a ton of in-fighting out in the field," he said. "The old hardware companies are getting more software services by association."

While there is intense focus on the software half of converged infrastructure, legacy hardware suppliers must hold up their end of the deal by delivering equipment that fully exploits the emerging class of Web-based software.

"You can see that functionality shifting toward software in the CI market," said Krista Macomber, analyst with Technology Business Research Inc., market researchers in Hampton, N.H. "That doesn't mean the hardware doesn't matter by any means -- quality and reliability of the underlying hardware is still very important."

If large and small converged infrastructure vendors continue to align and merge at the current pace, the competitive CI landscape could look very different a year from now. Whether this simplifies or complicates the buying decision and implementation process for corporate users remains to be seen.

On-premises CI systems and the cloud

Both large and small organizations are more comfortable with having servers, storage and networking on-premises -- a major benefit of CI systems, according to an analyst. Those companies also are more likely to purchase and launch cloud-based environments and applications from the same vendor.

"As users go with software-defined networks, or even whole software-defined data centers, the more turnkey the converged stack is, the more appealing it is to [small- and medium-size businesses] and others with lean IT staffs," said Dana Gardner, principal analyst with InterArbor Solutions LLC in Gilford, N.H.

But integrating new software with either new or legacy hardware, or integrating converged systems with existing business processes, may be anything but easy.

"There can be a number of issues that [converged infrastructure] vendors don't spell out, like how much time and money it costs to integrate their stuff with existing business processes both on premises and in the cloud," said a systems engineer for a Canadian financial services company, who declined to be identified. "There can be a lot of complexity down underneath."

Still, developers are trying to create tighter connections between on-premises converged systems and public cloud stacks, Gardner said. But for IT pros who prefer to accomplish this through a single vendor, it's largely been a dream deferred.

"A hybrid cloud's model works best if there is a lot of automation involved in moving workloads from an on-premises cloud to a public cloud," Gardner said. "So far, that has only been possible when there is a great deal of integration and typically from the same vendor."

And IT pros will spend a lot to find out if this next generation of converged offerings makes it easier or more difficult, researchers said.

Worldwide spending on the converged infrastructure market will hit $17.8 billion in 2016, up from $4.6 billion in 2012, according to research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass. CI will account for 12.8 % of total storage, server, networking and software spending by 2016, up from only 3.9% in 2012.

VMware, Marvin and CI

VMware hopes its upcoming CI product, code-named Marvin, will be its chance to claim a share of these growing revenues and broaden its market beyond its customer base.

Speculation has grown in recent weeks that Marvin is an integrated, software-only stack that can run on any x86-based server, which would open up broader market opportunities than its VCE partners could offer.

"VMware doesn't want to be known as a hardware company, they are a software company with partners," Gardner said. "What was once a Vblock alliance with a Cisco and EMC could also work very well with a Dell or HP."

Other observers have said that Marvin also gives VMware a chance to be more competitive in the converged infrastructure market, something the VCE offering was not.

But VMware's strength and weakness is that it sells largely to VMware shops. If the company wants to remain competitive, it must figure out a way to appeal to users with more heterogeneous environments.

Ultimately, VMware's ambitions with Marvin might be to reinvent itself by fitting in with the new style of IT that is reflected in emerging CI systems, as well as with public cloud providers who push the latest in hyperscale infrastructure, containers and big data.

"VMware used to be the new, disruptive thing, but it's amazing in such a short time that virtualization has become the standard legacy stuff of today, compared to this new style of cloud architecture and operations," said Gary Chen, an analyst at IDC.

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