Data center of the future: converged infrastructure
- By Rutrell Yasin
- Feb 15, 2013
A few years ago, the data center supporting critical agencies in Avondale, Ariz., was on the verge of maxing out on power and space, hampering the IT department's efforts to deploy new technologies that would help those agencies provide better services to citizens.
The array of servers and storage equipment in the data center consumed 98 percent of available power, draining much-needed power from new servers deployed on the network. This was not a good scenario for a department supporting public safety agencies that serve a population of 76,000 people in a city that is home to the Phoenix International Raceway.
"We had a definite power issue and we weren't getting the type of density we needed to provide all the services we needed to our employees and citizens," said Wesley Harris, an IT engineer for the city.
Avondale needed technology that used less power and space, and, at the same time, derived better performance and efficiency from a virtualized environment. The city eventually settled on an integrated data center infrastructure, NetApp's FlexPod, which helped the technology department continue its efforts to consolidate servers and disparate storage area networks. In the process, data center administrators were able to reduce power consumption, save on maintenance costs and provide a more efficient IT environment, Harris said.
Government agencies and municipalities are turning to this "converged infrastructure" technology to consolidate and unify data centers and to build private clouds, industry experts say. It also makes migrating to new technology easier.
The goal for many government agencies is to put all of their applications on a common, converged infrastructure in which they can dynamically add or remove resources along the way, said Dan Kent, director of solutions and CTO of Cisco U.S. Federal. The move to this next-generation, automated data center is a multiyear endeavor that started with virtualization and the concept of unified computing. Federal agencies are in pilot mode while state and local governments actually have converged infrastructures in production, Kent noted.
Cisco was a key driver of unified computing, which integrated computer processing and networking on the same platform. Unified computing focused on the virtualization of blade servers, allowing users to dynamically let one, 10 or even 100 servers focus on whatever application was going to sit on top of it, Kent said. Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) and servers tie together computing, networking, management, virtualization, and storage access into a single integrated architecture.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation deployed UCS a few years ago to consolidate and upgrade its aging servers, as well as to create savings in server operations by cutting costs in cooling and power consumption. By decreasing data center hardware, the MnDOT reduced costs by $300,000 to $400,000, and achieved potential eligibility for $77,000 in energy savings rebate, according to MnDOT IT officials.
However, a joint venture among Cisco, EMC and VMware three years ago really marked the beginning of converged infrastructure technology, Kent said. The partners created the subsidiary VCE, which offers the Vblock system to government agencies and businesses. Vblock is a converged infrastructure platform that incorporates unified computing, unified fabric, storage, virtualization software and automated tools to give users a simplified, standardized data center.
Cisco came up with a similar strategy but without the joint venture, with storage provider NetApp, which offers FlexPod. FlexPod is an integrated infrastructure that includes Cisco UCS blade servers and Cisco Nexus switches, NetApp's unified storage system and VMware virtualization technology.
These integrated infrastructures are built to host multiple or specific applications. The goal is to simplify data centers by integrating all essential IT resources to make it easier for IT administrators to put their applications on the infrastructure, Kent said.
Converged infrastructure focuses on the virtualization of the data, explained Steve Fritzinger, virtualization alliance manager for NetApp U.S. Public Sector. Users have the virtual machines and blade servers, but not the whole deployment of the application in virtualized environments. A file might live on a specific disk while a particular database runs on a specific shelf of disk drives, he said.
"So how do I virtualize my data in the context of this greater virtualized environment I've been building over the last four years? That is what integrated infrastructure is all about," Fritzinger said.
During the first wave of server consolidation, IT managers were looking to ease the environmental impact on the data center by reducing spending on power and cooling. They were looking to recovery capacity in the data center that could be used to deploy new services, much like what Avondale did, Fritzinger said.
A lot of this consolidation is still ongoing in municipalities, universities and even in the federal government with the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative, Fritzinger said. However, since many government agency managers now are comfortable running mission-critical systems on virtual machines, they are thinking about deploying "true" cloud solutions or on-premise clouds that can hook into public clouds for surging workloads or seasonal processing. Some are even considering the move of disaster recovery into the public cloud, Fritzinger said.
Other governmental agencies are extending their integrated infrastructures to deliver data center and IT services to multiple communities. For example, Melrose, Mass., a small city seven miles north of Boston with a population of 28,150, is breaking new ground as an IT service provider.
FlexPod is the underlying technology that allows Melrose's IT team to provide services to 18 sites within the city, including a variety of agencies such as the public school system and the police and fire departments. Prior to the implementation of FlexPod, each school had its own data center or, in the case of elementary schools, small-scale server rooms. By implementing FlexPod, the city consolidated the schools' entire infrastructure into a single data center. Now the IT department is positioned to offer data center and IT services to other Massachusetts cities and towns via a secure, multi-tenant private cloud.
Brocade, a provider of network solutions to the federal government, is trying to bring simplicity to the data center by flattening networks and reducing the need for human intervention.
"The most complicated network in the world is the network that serves the U.S. government," with good reason, said Anthony Robbins, Brocade's vice president of federal. But consider this, he said: Eighty percent of network issues are related to human intervention, 70 percent of the cost of the government's network infrastructure is for service on the network, and more than 70 percent of the government's money goes to maintain legacy infrastructure.
So Brocade has focused on offering an Ethernet fabric, a network that is automatically able to manage itself and can scale up or down depending on demand. Additionally, the company has focused on software-defined networking to reduce the need for human intervention.
"We basically flatten the network, make it simpler," Robbins said. "If it is simpler, it requires less people. If it requires less people then the total cost [of the network is less] and all that improves business performance."
Agency managers will want to think more about how to manage these converged infrastructures that are more software-controlled, said Paul Christman, vice president of public sector for Dell Software. They most likely will need a new generation of tools to effectively control and manage software-driven infrastructures, he added.
Moving to an integrated infrastructure is not the end game or ultimate goal, NetApp's Fritzinger noted. An agency's mission or a city's need to cut costs is driving the move. An integrated infrastructure is designed to reduce the risk of migrating from old to new technology, he said. Without an integrated approach, it could take federal government or city agencies years to cobble systems together. Managers nowadays want to apply proven best practices and not reinvent the wheel when applying new technology, Fritzinger said, adding, "People are tired of running their data centers like a science fair project."