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It used to be that a data center was a unique and recognizable place, marked by certain physical attributes.
Historically it has been known for its glass walls, humming machinery, and special heating, vacuum and air-conditioning equipment. As equipment has shrunk, dispersed or been hidden and as machines have become more reliable -- and more virtualized -- the old data center has begun to fade away.
Still, even with increasing levels of virtualization, many data centers remain repositories for physical infrastructure that is struggling to keep pace.
Technology trends such as cloud computing and the bring your own device (BYOD) movement are putting pressure on IT departments to modernize the data center topography to create even more flexible services with better performance and security.
The software-defined data center (SDDC) may be central to that shift. The concept behind this approach is to bring every aspect of an IT environment to parity through virtualization. As a result, all infrastructure is delivered as a service and automated by software.
Bang for the buck
The potential of an SDDC is apparent in the challenges for James Patterson, chief operating officer of Toronto-based BPS Resolver, a software company that delivers compliance technology via Software as a Service. But his company wanted to focus on its product, not on supporting infrastructure, so it turned to hosting company CentriLogic to provide a home for its offerings.
For the most part, said Patterson, he has been thrilled with CentriLogic, which relies heavily on virtualization technology to support shifting customer demand. But despite CentriLogic's continued effort to improve its capabilities, Patterson said, when a change in network configuration is required, unlike the near-instantaneous response for server and storage changes, it takes a lot longer to implement.
The culprit, he suspects, is the fact that virtualization technology has not yet flowed into the world of switches and routers, which still depend heavily on manual and sometimes even physical reconfiguration to adapt to new demands.
That's why there's a growing buzz around the concept of SDDC and a key enabler, software-defined networking.
"Companies are beyond ready for the software-defined data center," said Brandon Myers, an engagement manager at SWC Technology Partners, a Chicago-area IT consulting firm. "SDDC provides options to administrators that they have wanted for a long time but couldn't afford."
The term SDDC crystallizes the convergence of two core concepts: a fully virtualized environment and the presence of cloud computing, according to Jim Damoulakis, chief technology officer at Southborough, Mass.-based GlassHouse Technologies, a consulting and advisory firm. "The main benefit of SDDC from a private cloud standpoint is its ability to deliver better efficiency, flexibility and agility," he said.
Damoulakis said while server virtualization has created a revolution -- dramatically reducing server provisioning times from weeks to hours, for example -- the picture for storage, and especially for networking, has been less favorable. The net result has been to reduce overall infrastructure flexibility. The vision that SDDC represents has been to "wrap" the entire environment with automation by adding a layer of management. As a result, changes become repeatable, low effort and consistent, he said.
Damoulakis said the term software-defined data center appears to have originated with VMware Inc., the virtualization company. "They are a software firm, and software firms tend to view things in soft-ware terms," he said. "I would prefer software-enabled [over software-defined], because software is the tool set and what you should be doing is focusing on solving a business problem, not simply imposing a software vision on things."
About the author: Alan R. Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology