BACKGROUND IMAGE: iSTOCK/GETTY IMAGES
Converged infrastructure solutions promise reduced cost and shorter deployments, but some shops wonder if the negatives outweigh the benefits.
Data center managers have been struggling to meet two conflicting business drivers: more use of IT systems and minimal increases in IT spending.
The ongoing need to do more with less has spurred them to pressure their suppliers to deliver more efficient data center hardware. The result has been a new generation of products, which go by various names, such as "converged systems," "converged infrastructure" and "unified computing systems." These systems consolidate autonomous products -- servers, storage systems, network devices -- into single systems. But as these products begin to gain market traction, suppliers are tweaking their approaches by bundling integration services and software applications on their solutions and offering customers an even wider range of deployment options.
Recently, IT departments have had trouble keeping pace with growth in their data centers. Traditionally, each time that a new application was built, they had to deploy a new server, storage system and network switch. As a result, even small and medium-sized businesses found themselves working with tens, hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of network switches, servers and storage systems.
"Companies have not had sufficient staff to keep pace with the constant demand for new computing infrastructure," said Sam Barnett, directing analyst for data center and cloud at Infonetics Research.
To ease the burden, vendors such as Brocade, Cisco Systems Inc., Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM and Oracle Corp. have been building a new generation of unified data center devices. Bundling various hardware functions in consolidated systems reduces costs, speeds up deployments and simplifies maintenance.
Improvements with converged infrastructure
These new solutions take advantage of recent improvements in automation, semiconductors and virtualization. One noteworthy potential draw to collapsing a hodgepodge of server, network and storage systems into a single chassis is cost reductions. Fewer devices mean less need for floor space and reduced use of power and cooling systems. Also, companies no longer have to string cable to connect a server or a storage system to a switch, a change that could reduce cabling by as much as 50%. International Data Corp. estimates that as much as 15 percent of a data center's equipment budget goes to cabling.
Cabling savings intrigued the University of Alabama at Birmingham, which has 30,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students, as well as 18,000 faculty and staff members. Its campus spans 80 city blocks and features a biomedical research center and a hospital. The academic entity has about 200 TB of tier-one and tier-two storage, supported by Brocade, Direct Data Networks Inc. and Hitachi Data Systems storage solutions. Because so many storage devices are used, the university was spending millions of dollars on cabling each year. "We thought moving to the new infrastructure would cut our cabling costs in half," said Bob Cloud, executive director of IT infrastructure services at the University of Alabama.
With the university planning a move to a new data center, it searched for an integrated computing solution. "We have had a strong relationship with Brocade for many years and were interested in its integrated products," said Cloud.
During the summer of 2010, the University of Alabama at Birmingham started building its converged infrastructure by purchasing Brocade's 8000 switch, which supports 24 ports of 10 Gigabit Ethernet for LAN connections and eight Fibre Channel ports -- with a speed of up to 8 Gbps -- for Fibre Channel SAN communications. The university has installed the new storage system and is now putting the finishing touches on its data center, which will go live by the summer of 2013.
Faster deployment is another plus that the new systems offer. "Because the underlying items are integrated, IT departments can get a new system up and running in days, rather than weeks, and also add servers, storage or network bandwidth with a few mouse clicks," said Christian Perry, senior analyst at Technology Business Research Inc.
In addition, businesses are able to streamline management functions. Since the integrated systems include fewer components, it becomes easier to troubleshoot problem connections. Also, the components can be controlled by a single operator console, rather than a variety of different management systems.
Converged systems can pose problems
While they offer many potential benefits, these products also have some shortcomings. Since they touch upon so many elements, these solutions do not blend well into existing data centers. To implement these systems, companies will need to make a significant capital investment in a new deployment, often involving six figures.
Getting all of the different components to work together can be a challenge. "These solutions work best when a company has equipment from a single vendor; it is not as easy to integrate systems from different suppliers," said Barnett.
Because of the complexity of the work, it has taken a while for some of the leading vendors to pull all of the elements in their product lines together. In certain cases, vendors supply only some of the components. Brocade offers storage and networking solutions, but not servers. Cisco doesn't own storage, so it has partnered with EMC Corp. and NetApp Inc.
The integrated devices started to make their way to the market in the past few years. Given its clean sheet of server design paper, Cisco has been the most aggressive -- and some would say most successful -- in delivering these solutions. "Cisco has become a leading x86 server supplier mainly from the success of its selling integrated solutions," said Perry. The vendor claims to have more than 10,000 Unified Computing System customers and more than $1 billion annually in revenue from the systems.
Competitors developed variations on the main theme and are bundling more elements. HP and IBM have large systems integration units and have focused on delivering services, as well as data center hardware, to potential customers. Oracle has told businesses to look at the application first, and then it offers them hardware for that solution. HP and IBM have also delivered application-specific versions of their integrated systems.
Additional approaches are expected to emerge as the market matures. "There is a lot of competition in the integrated data center system space, which is spurring a great deal of innovation," said Perry.
About the author
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in cloud computing and data center-related topics. He is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.