Converged Infrastructure – Bringing IT all together in the data centre
‘Converged infrastructure’ is a term that we have used for some time in IT– but what do we actually mean by ‘converged’ and what benefits do these solutions promise. We bring together the views of some of the leading experts from SCC and our vendor partners in the field to help you understand what converged infrastructure solutions have to offer and where they fit in your business
What is a ‘converged infrastructure’ solution?
The term ‘converged infrastructure’ started to become part of everyday IT parlance around five years ago, when vendors started to use the term to describe how all the systems within the data centre could be brought together and closely integrated to provide more efficient and streamlined performance and operation.
The concept of the converged solution really emerged as a counter the unmanaged explosion of technology in the data centre that had been taking place, says Alastair Hopkins, Vice President, EMEA Alliances and Channels at Oracle. “I think we’ve seen over the last ten or so years what many call the ‘IT sprawl’, of multi-vendor solutions across the data centre and that created enormous complexity and manageability problems.”
Advances such as virtualisation and storage area networking had brought additional and valuable capabilities to the data centre. But to a greater or lesser extent, these solutions had been added to pre-existing infrastructure. They could not always be perfectly integrated and this led issues with manageability and scalability.
Bringing server, storage virtualisation, management and even application software together into one fully integrated solution was presented as the answer. Some vendors did try to harness the term as a way of illustrating why it made sense to deploy solutions from only one vendor (in so much as this was possible) across the data centre.
But no vendor has all the technologies and software required to run a data centre to maximum efficiency. Realising this, vendors with complementary solutions started to work on the development of the pre-configured solutions and appliances that are now available.
Today, the term ‘converged infrastructure’ is used to refer to a specific, pre-configured integrated solution, often the result of a collaboration between several vendors, that brings together server storage, virtualisation and management technologies into a single, integrated system that can be deployed and put to use almost immediately.
Charlie Cornish, General Manager, Enterprise Platforms at SCC, sums it up neatly: “Converged infrastructure is the bringing together of network, compute, storage, virtualisation and automation into a single integrated solution.”
Usually, these solutions are designed to perform specific functions, such as virtualisation, VDI, big data and private cloud. Importantly, Derek Cockerton, Director EMEA for HP’s Helion converged cloud team notes, they make it easier and faster for customers to deploy an effective solution for the task at hand.
“Converged infrastructure is primarily where a vendor or groups of vendors have taken the initiative to put pre-configured systems together and have basically put customers in the position where they are not responsible for that engineering but we are; and we deliver a pre-cut solution that is quicker and easier to implement.”
The advantages of bringing all these technologies together, ready for immediate deployment and use, are considerable, says Nigel Moulton, CTO EMEA for converged systems vendor, VCE. “Once you have converged infrastructure, several things in your IT operations change. Firstly, the amount of time you spend maintaining and operating the infrastructure is significantly reduced, versus a do-it-yourself or a built-it-yourself approach. Secondly, because it arrives on your data centre floor as a complete solution, your ability to spin up new series is significantly quicker.”
The benefits are implicit to the concept itself, says Simon Hodkin, Systems Architect at IBM. “These systems are built to work together, so the patches work knowing about all the other components in the system. You should get better performance because the systems are optimised to work together and they are easier to manage.”
Organisations are starting to realise that they do not need to buy IT as discrete components now, says Alan Watson, Flexpod Business Owner UK for NetApp. Solutions can be provided, fully converged and configured and systems, pre-endorsed by software vendors, ready to be used.
“Customers are getting very savvy. We have spent a long time in the IT industry telling customers that we had very good networking, storage, server and software and actually none of it really hung together that well and customers had to make use of those best-of-breed solutions and actually build it themselves. What they can now say to us is ‘I want to run these applications, can you help me?’ And yes, we can take validated solutions off the shelf to give our customers exactly what they need to run their business. No longer is IT taking control of the customers – customers can take control of the IT.”
Ian Sherratt, Corporate Development Manager at SCC, believes that with the clear benefits of converged infrastructure, customers should and can expect very positive outcomes from any investment they make. “This is a highly cohesive infrastructure and we should be getting maximum performance benefits and improvements from deploying the converged infrastructure platform.”
Multiple platforms and choices
Converged infrastructure solutions can be deployed for many scenarios. As you’d expect, there are differences between what each vendor and each integrated solution has to offer.
HP, for example, offers converged solutions that will integrate with existing management platforms, a capability that Cockerton says, distinguishes the company’s approach. “We began working in this space around three years ago and we’ve matured those offerings into pre-configured ‘bricks’ of different sizes to do specific things, such as virtualisation, virtual desktop infrastructure, things like big data, including private cloud. You can buy a pre-configured solution to get to a private cloud very quickly and that’s important. We’ve also added the capability to integrate upwards to pre-existing management platforms and that probably also sets us apart.”
HP’s converged infrastructure offerings are also open, he notes, allowing them to work with existing technologies and to scale server storage and network elements to scale independently and support a choice of hypervisor solutions for virtualisation, or indeed the option to run multiple systems on the platform. Critically, HP’s solutions are also designed to enable integration and up-scaling to its management platforms, allowing area such as governance, risk management and security to be addressed.
Fast and flexible
Oracle’s approach to converged infrastructure, says Hopkins, is all about making it simpler for customers to take advantage of technology. “About five or six years ago now, Oracle launched its Engineered Systems platform and we been a market leader and even a market creator in many ways, driving the engineering of our hardware and software teams, to work together and take advantage of each-other, driving simplicity for our customers.”
The company’s Virtual Compute Appliance (VCA) is an Oracle Engineered System that has all the components necessary to virtualise a complete environment, all in one device.
“It’s a general, all-purpose machine that delivers flexibility, rapid deployment and application consolidation and, of course, deployment in private cloud environments. Using Enterprise Manager and Oracle Virtual Machine, together with pre-configured templates, it speeds up deployment very rapidly. The total cost of ownership is very low and it’s a got an on-demand configuration, so you can start with as few as two processors and grow as needed. It really delivers high speed deployment of applications in a virtual world and it can be deployed in a matter of hours, rather than weeks or months.”
Hopkins says the by offering simplicity, increased agility and much lower TCO, the OVM is really proving its value He says that Oracle has seen instances where customers have made 70 percent or higher reductions in relative total cost of ownership.”
One company that has been very successful in the converged appliances market is NetApp. Keeping it simple has been the key to success, says Alan Watson. “We try and make our IT very simple. We don’t use lots of different complex technology to make the solution into a converged stack, it’s very simple components – simple Cisco UCS servers and Nexus switches, and NetApp storage that just connect seamlessly together and work in a very horizontal, scalable way.”
NetApp Flexpod is now four years old and it’s been very successful, says Watson due to the fact that it’s simple and flexible. “Customers like it because it does not tie them into any orchestration tool or any software stacks; they can run multiple workloads on it in a very easy and scalable way. They can horizontally scale it when they need to, they can buy it when they need to.”
Pure and simple
IBM’s PureFlex system is very open and standard-based and it is possible to have converged solutions built to suit your needs. This makes the solution very fast and easy to deploy, says Hodkin.
“You can have it pre-built at the plant, all items racked and cabled to best practices. It is shipped like that, you wheel it into your data centre, you plug in some cables, [assign] a few network addresses and you’re ready to go. Finally, you fire up the servers, the operating systems or the hypervisors, as preferred. It’s a very rapid install time.”
With PureFlex, build standards are defined and recorded on the system itself. This is a simple way of making sure you get the best from your investment and never become too dependent on the knowledge of individual engineers, who might leave at any time.
IBM has produced a series of reference architectures for converged infrastructure architectures and processes suitable for different deployments and uses. These can be used to assess what you might in terms of converged solutions within your own organisation.
VCE’s solutions combine technology from storage specialist EMC, Cisco’s UCS and networking fabric technology and VMware virtualisation and management. The solution is called VBlock and one of the outstanding features of the solution is VCE’s Release Certification Matrix.
This is a database of intellectual property detailing the specific hardware components and software version combinations that have been thoroughly tested and certified for use. VCE shares this information with customers to ensure close integration of all Vblock elements, with the aim of significantly reducing downtime. Nigel Moulton says that this significantly enhances the value of the converged solution.
“We do a lot of work to manage the interconnection between the components, both at a hardware and software level. So, once you look at a converged infrastructure platform over the lifetime of the asset, it is significantly cheaper to operate and manage and you are able to spin up services to your business much quicker and with reduced downtime and less risk.”
The future of converged infrastructure
IBM’s Hodkin says it should really be no surprise that technologies are being brought together in the data centre. “If you think about your own use of technology, many of us today use smartphones – converged devices. Only a few years ago we used separate calculators, MP3 players, storage devices, a mobile phone and camera. The convergence of these technologies has crept up on us, and its creeping up in the data centre as well.”
It will, Hodkin adds, be important to deploy systems that are open and therefore do not limit your options. “Make sure it supports as many technologies as it can. It should support multiple operating systems and hypervisors at the same time and conform to open standards, such as Openstack, and that it gives you the ability to look at new areas, such as software-defined networking and software-defined storage.”
There are still some challenges to address around converged solutions, says VCE’s Moulton, particularly with regard to the way IT is organised within customer organisations. “Many of our customers’ IT organisations are siloed. You have engineers that understand storage, those that understand network compute, and frequently when you bring these people together in a room, the talk completely separate languages.
“The problems and the challenges they face are unique to the technology they manage and this is not conducive to you building out an IT organisation that is very agile and innovative. You spend too much time worrying about how the infrastructure components are built and how they go together and less time worrying about how IT bring IT innovation to your business.
“The challenges that converged infrastructure looks to solve is how you stop that happening and transform your IT operation, so that they are more agile and innovative and that’s how your business will view them.”
VCE and other partners are now working to overcome these specific challenges, Multon adds, by making converged solutions easier to manage and scale. “Some of the challenges that converged infrastructure brings to an organisation, around how their teams operationally transform will be something you’ll see the industry address and part of that will be to make the management of converged infrastructure easier than it is perhaps today.
“Also, we see customers starting to ask questions now around how they can scale out both in the storage and compute domains and I think you will see the industry make that easier by bringing different storage types into the same architecture and by maybe allowing different x86 capabilities, perhaps around high-performance compute, to also be made available in a converged infrastructure play. We will work to drive changes in those spaces and you should expect to see the whole industry converge around those ideas as well.”
A bright future
Statistics show that customers are increasing their spending on converged infrastructure solutions, with IDC figures showing year-on-year shipments up by 51 percent in the second quarter of 2015. Oracle’s Hopkins expects the trend to gather pace. “I think we’ll see more and more of that as our customers realise the importance of converged systems. More than half of our customers who buy an engineered system come back to buy another, because they see the benefits.”
HP’s Derek Cockerton also believes the future for converged solutions is extremely bright. “There are definitely going to be a few speed bumps down the road but actually I think what will happen is that customers will trust convergence more and more and look to open solutions and very specifically look to work with vendors like HP and trusted partners like SCC to deliver end solutions quickly, and that’s where the value is, in that end-to-end partnership.”
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