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Unified computing: A 2010 data center trend?

Gartner says unified computing is the future of the server platform, but end users remain skeptical about 'converged architecture' in the data center.

LAS VEGAS -- Pundits and vendors swear that unified computing is the future of the server platform, but many IT pros won't sign on the dotted line.

Attendees at the Gartner Data Center Conference this week heard a lot about the future of servers, and that future involves a lot of so-called IT convergence, also known as unified computing," or 'converged architecture.' Andrew Butler, a Gartner vice president and analyst added his own buzzphrase: fabric-based computing and predicted that 30% of Global 2000 companies will run some form of it by the end of 2012.

But the technology is young and skeptics abound. Many concerns revolve around vendor lock-in, and there are worries around feasibility, cost and workplace politics.

"I think [unified computing is] interesting, but I don't know that we're culturally ready to do that," said Scott Rowe, a director in the CTO office at Emdeon, a Nashville-based healthcare company. "I think some of it is that compliance and regulation keeps you from bringing everything together."

Combining servers, storage, networking tightens integration
The basic concept is to combine servers, networking and storage from one vendor in one enclosure. Clearly hardware makers like Cisco Systems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. solidly back that concept. Cisco launched its Unified Computing System (UCS) last April and HP responded soon thereafter.

Cisco's vision actually relies on close collaboration with VMware and EMC. The three companies put their respective firepower behind a Virtual Computing Environment partnership last month. Hype aside, the notion is so new that many IT pros haven't had time to kick the tires. During an impromptu poll at one conference session, only 1% called Cisco their "strategic" blade server vendor. Indeed, Cisco hadn't shipped a server at all until a few months ago.

One-stop shop for many IT constituencies
Kurt Scheetz, an IT solutions manager for Verizon, said unified computing comes down to balancing the benefits of one-stop shopping –dealing with fewer vendors means fewer headaches – against the financial drawbacks for all the departments that IT serves.

Scheetz said an IT department might favor converged architecture. But getting server, networking and storage all from one vendor could mean higher costs. If those costs are shouldered by different departments in the company – human resources, payroll, etc. – then there's a tug-of-war. "It all comes down to dollars and cents," he said. "In theory it's great, but in reality it's something different."

Butler acknowledged that vendor lock-in remains a concern. He said that right now blade servers represent vendor lock-in, and that his vision of fabric-based computing could further tighten the ties that bind.

An enterprise infrastructure planning manager at a Canadian government agency concurred that unified computing is "just something we wouldn't do."

"We want competitive procurements," he said, adding that they have a wide mix of vendors in their data centers. "Our business practice has been to not align with any particular vendor."

Mark Fontecchio can be reached at

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