Technology choices in data center consolidation

Road to data center convergence starts at a fork in the road

As government agencies and municipalities turn to converged infrastructures to consolidate and unify data centers and build private clouds, they face a choice of technologies: reference architectures or integrated systems?

Which one works best depends on agencies' existing infrastructure and what they are trying to achieve.

Two examples of converged infrastructure widely used in enterprises are NetApp’s FlexPod (which uses references architectures) and VCE’s Vblock systems (integrated systems). The two systems are similar in that they combine compute, networking, storage and virtualization components into a single platform. But the companies take different implementation approaches, with FlexPod offering more opportunity to customize the technology to fit into existing infrastructures and VCE providing a line of pre-configured systems.

If agency IT managers are setting up a brand new virtualized environment or data center and have a good idea of the type of workloads they want to put on the virtual infrastructure, an integrated system such as VCE’s Vblock would be a good choice, said Joe Brown, president of Accelera Solutions, a systems integrator that works with government and commercial organizations.

An integrated suite of unified computing, unified fabric, storage, virtualization software and automated tools, Vblock comes in various sizes, giving IT managers the ability to quickly calculate the amount of CPU cycles, RAM and storage they need and pick the system that fits their requirements.

However, if managers are looking to retrofit their virtualization infrastructure or looking for a system to grow into, they may have a struggle with Vblock, because it is modular and offers fixed performance levels. “You might have to buy two Vblocks and maybe you only need 1.1 Vblocks to get you where you need to go,” Brown said.

“One way to think about it is: If you are building something brand new, and want a modular, scalable architecture, then Vblock” is better suited for that environment, he said. Brown noted that Accelera Solutions has federal and commercial customers using Vblock. Ten of the world’s top 15 telecommunications companies use Vblock Systems, and more than 600 customers worldwide have deployed the systems, according to VCE officials.

On the other hand, there is FlexPod, developed through a partnership between Cisco and NetApp. It’s an integrated data center system that includes Cisco Unified Computing System blade servers and Cisco Nexus switches, NetApp’s unified storage system and VMware virtualization technology. “You can more easily customize a NetApp [FlexPod] offering,” Brown said. 

Cisco and NetApp now have more than 2,100 FlexPod customers across more than 35 countries and 700 channel partners, including municipalities such as the City of Melrose, Mass, which built a secure, private cloud in order to offer other small cities and towns within the state IT services.

“FlexPod is a set of reference architectures that you or a partner can use to create a system,” said Steve Fritzinger, virtualization alliance manager for NetApp U.S. Public Sector. It is very rare that NetApp gear is going into an empty data center where IT managers can just pop it in, he said.  Often, there are legacy systems that must work with newer technology. Adding other components or management systems might not be as easy with a pre-configured system, he said. 

A misconception about pre-configured systems is that they are somehow not as flexible as systems that allow for customization, said Trey Layton, CTO of VCE, a company created by a joint venture among Cisco, EMC and VMware. “Truth is, there are 300 million configuration options for the systems that we have – a massively large number,” Layton said, and Vblock systems can accommodate any configuration agencies might need.

“We are just deploying those configurations in a highly optimized, highly-standardized, pre-determined, pre-validated configuration,” Layton said.

VCE recently expanded the Vblock portfolio to include smaller systems that can be deployed in tactical military units, remote offices, embassies and institutions where there is not a core computing platform in a data center, Layton said. The company also entered the specialized system arena, teaming up with SAP AG to pre-install SAP HANA data analytic software on a single, standardized converged infrastructure system. 

IBM recently added a big data analytic system to its PureSystem line of converged infrastructure technology that combines compute, networking and storage. Oracle also offers specialized boxes and an analytic appliance as part of its Exadata Database Machine.

The next-generation of converged infrastructure systems that go beyond FlexPod and Vblock are already on the market from companies such as Nutanix and Tintri, Brown said. For instance, Nutanix has built a converged compute and storage architecture into a single box versus having separate components that are networked together.

Building modularity and converged architecture into a single appliance reduces networking costs because organizations don’t need as much external networking as in a traditional architecture.  Moreover, organizations don’t have to have specialists for every component such as servers, networking or storage. Instead, they’ll just need a person who understands the converged appliance, Brown said, noting that these systems are being used for virtual desktop infrastructures.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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