When the recession hit in 2008, the U.S. economy slowed dramatically. Large financial institutions collapsed and the country saw some of the worst unemployment rates since the Great Depression. Across all industries, organizations began tightening their belts, searching for ways to increase efficiency and cut costs. With IT budgets frequently targeted for these cuts, many organizations were challenged to streamline IT operations while also ensuring that the business remained competitive within its market.
In the past, organizations would piece data centers and networks together, with IT manually configuring, testing, and rolling out individual components. Scaling meant piecing together new parts with legacy equipment, but not necessarily evaluating the system as a whole or the future data center needs. As a result, organizations would end up with an infrastructure that worked and met user needs (for the most part), but was incredibly complex and required a great deal of maintenance. When challenged to cut costs, IT departments realized they needed to shift their priorities — and reduce the amount of time and effort spent “keeping the lights on.”
Recognizing this customer need, a new kind of IT emerged in 2009 as the result of collaborative effort between Cisco, EMC, and VMware — converged infrastructure. The three companies created VCE and, since then, several other large technology vendors have invested in the converged system space, including HP, IBM, NetApp, and Oracle. Over the past year, the market has seen 50% year-over-year growth1without any signs of slowing down and is projected to reach $17.8 billion in 2016.2
DEFINING CONVERGED INFRASTRUCTURE
As the industry has grown and matured, a number of different approaches to converged systems have also emerged. According to Gartner, the market is divided into three different categories — integrated stack systems, integrated infrastructure systems, and integrated reference architectures:
Integrated infrastructure systems are optimized compute infrastructures made up of pre-integrated server, storage, and network hardware. VCE Vblock systems are an example of an integrated infrastructure system.
Integrated stack systems are application-centric systems of server, storage, and network hardware. This approach allows for a system with application-like functionality. Examples of integrated stacks include VCE Vblock Specialized Systems, Oracle Exadata and Exalogic, and HP AppSystems.
Integrated reference architectures are a set of components designed as options for an integrated system. The user can make configuration choices from the list of pre-approved options. NetApp FlexPods and EMC VSPEX both use this approach.
Each of these approaches has its advantages; however, a truly converged system — an integrated infrastructure or stack system that factory-builds the compute, network, storage, and software technologies into a single unit coupled with a single point of management and support — follows a number of distinct guidelines. A system that is engineered, manufactured, managed, supported, and sustained as a single entity will provide the simplified approach and operating expense savings that meet the needs of today’s IT departments, not to mention it can be deployed in production in days, not weeks or months.
The guidelines for true convergence all center on treating the system as a single product. Similar to the way consumers view and purchase a car, the individual components of the system are incredibly important, but it is the overall user experience that matters. The principles for true convergence include:
A true converged infrastructure is engineered as one product. It is a tightly integrated system that must be developed as a single system with integrated roadmaps and unique development processes. The system is pre-integrated, pre-tested, and pre-validated.
A true converged infrastructure is manufactured as one product. It does not arrive at a customer’s warehouse or facility in parts that need to be assembled. It is treated as a single system built in a factory, to arrive whole and application-ready.
A true converged infrastructure is managed as one product. It features a management software layer that provides comprehensive awareness of all resources and activities.
A true converged infrastructure is supported as one product. It is not supported by component specialists that aren’t able to look at the system as a whole. A converged infrastructure provides end-to-end support for all components, but more importantly, provides specialists that understand the intricacies of a converged system.
Finally, a true converged infrastructure is sustained as one product. It should free customers of the burden of complex patches and updates. As the system is engineered, manufactured, managed, and supported as one product, updates and patches should also be made similarly simple. By providing step-by-step instructions, configurations, and guidelines, sustaining a system through its product lifecycle is more manageable.
When all of these guidelines are met within a system, customers can leverage the key benefits of convergence, including decreased operating expenditures and higher availability. While alternative reference architectures provide benefits, they can’t be considered truly converged and therefore don’t provide the same simplified approach to IT.
THE BENEFITS OF A CONVERGED SYSTEM
As the demands on IT organizations increase, executives nevertheless continue to place high value in supporting business objectives, providing rapid service deployment and scalability, and implementing new services. All of which should be done with limited capital and operational expenditures. Converged infrastructure is designed to meet these requirements by taking away the complexity of IT management.
A converged system can dramatically reduce operating expenses. As the hardware components are designed and optimized to work as a single unit, the time and labor IT spends on maintenance can be reduced. For example, patching and regression testing is generally a large and ever-present time commitment required from IT. Using a siloed approach, IT was generally unsure how a patch in the storage or networking silos would impact other areas of the infrastructure. Using converged systems with single management and support, patching and testing can be standardized and save IT from having to manually configure and patch. From a management perspective, converged solutions are by nature easier to implement, deploy, and manage.
Large-scale IT projects, like setting up cloud platforms or virtual desktop solutions, can take months or years. Even when they are being rolled out, these projects require months of tinkering and adjusting. Due to the unique manufacturing process, converged infrastructure can be rapidly deployed and requires very little configuration. In fact, certain vendors can deliver new converged systems in as few as 45 days and have it ready to use in less than 48 hours.
In the same vein, the design of converged systems makes it easy to scale the environment to support data-intensive application workloads while keeping high performance levels. Providing both vertical and horizontal scaling to accommodate growth, changing workloads, and scheduled maintenance demands, converged systems are ideal for dynamic environments.
It is for these reasons that converged infrastructure touts a lower cost of ownership than a traditional infrastructure. Reducing operating expenses, accelerating application deployments, and increasing scalability are important from a business operations perspective, but the real value of convergence for an organization comes in the evolution of the IT department.
CHANGING THE WAY IT WORKS
The reduction of operating expenses and the ability to scale are great benefits, but where converged systems really prove their value is through indirect business benefits. IT departments are under pressure to not only maintain standard IT services, but to continuously look for ways to innovate and provide new solutions that meet employee or consumer needs. In the Cisco 2013 IT Impact Survey, only 35% of respondents were “somewhat confident in their IT department’s ability to respond to the needs of the business.”
Converged infrastructure empowers the IT department by allowing them to spend more time focusing on IT innovation and less time on basic maintenance. These systems let IT departments shift resources from the tactical to the strategic to deliver greater business agility and enable real IT transformation through new applications, extended services, and improved user/customer satisfaction.
Traditionally, IT has been a very siloed organization that tends to create tension, particularly when a problem arises. The resulting finger pointing and back-and-forth between the separate silos prevent IT from moving forward. Converged management dissolves the data center silos and improves IT productivity. No longer can IT sit in a storage or networking silo and ignore what is happening elsewhere in the infrastructure. Converged infrastructures help IT departments move toward converged operations, with the ability to focus on system-wide infrastructures.
Customers continuously note that one of the major advantages of converged infrastructure is increasing the agility of IT organizations. As an example, a global organization that provides flexible IT services to Fortune 1000 companies, governments, and organizations deployed a converged solution in 2012. Not only can their business application owners now quickly spin up multiple virtual machines for a particular application, but they can choose to create test environments that are needed for only a week. They have seen cost savings for their client base in moving from traditional IT outsourcing to a cloud business model — all due to a more agile infrastructure.
There is no denying that converged infrastructure is an attractive option for many organizations. The industry is experiencing massive growth, as more options become available. Customers that have purchased converged infrastructure solutions are choosing to scale through these systems because of the immediate advantages. However, there are hurdles to greater adoption. First and foremost, an IT organization must be willing to change how it is organized and the way it operates.
Breaking down silos is a disruption. It changes the status quo, and that can be a difficult sell to any organization. However, once an organization does undergo this transformation, it can more easily become strategic contributors. By converging operations, they are able to correct deficiencies in the IT environment and drive greater operational efficiencies. Most importantly, they can have a greater impact on a business’s bottom line.
CONVERGED INFRASTRUCTURE: THE FUTURE OF THE DATA CENTER
While the economy continues to improve, the past few years have taught organizations many lessons, including the realization that IT needed to change. Converged systems solve many of the issues revealed by the economic downturn, evolving from a slow, siloed, and costly approach. Businesses willing to embrace the next wave of IT and implement converged infrastructure will realize the benefits of easy management, decreased operating expenses, and a more agile IT organization.