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Is converged infrastructure a crutch?


This started as a response to a twitter conversation with @DuncanYB and @joshobrien77  re: converged infrastructure. Duncan recently posted a great blog post about Converged compute and storage. Go read that first. I’ll wait here.

Welcome back! Ok, to start I agree with Duncan’s comments that Nutanix is certainly in the leader group for what’s viewed today as “Converged Infrastructure”, in that it’s delivering a whole stack solution. The other company mentioned in Duncan’s blogpost is Simplivity. Both companies are doing awesome stuff, and have figured out ways to solve REALLY complex problems.

Taking a step back and thinking about what they’re both delivering, both companies have a hardware solution that bundles virtualized network, compute and storage capabilities. Fundamentally, they’re both delivering x86 platforms with this new methodology for what I’m calling “complete virtualization*“. Converged Infrastructure today implying a specific hardware vendor component to deliver.

If we look at what problems virtualization solved in the enterprise, separating the compute from the hardware really pushed forward in an evolutionary way. With old school virtualization (vSphere 101, compute only) old towers were brought down and in some cases, new towers were built up. Storage and Network hardware and designs remained relatively unaffected, but certainly leveraged in new ways.

Inserting a shim between the Storage hardware and virtualizing storage is moving forward quickly. This isn’t as simple as virtualizing traditional storage architectures. While you can throw traditional storage in a VM and leverage it (think a virtual EMC, Netapp, or Nexenta virtual appliances, this doesn’t give a full featured CI answer to storage. This is a key component in CI solutions today providing stability, replication and scalability needed to host enterprise applications. There are other places outside of CI where this is happening in IT today. Looking at Gluster, Ceph, or even Isilon, these solutions scale out storage effectively. If these can be instantiated virtually it allows for the colllapse onto a single compute, storage, and network “node”.  I’d say this allows for an existing precedent for these types of potential “CI” style storage solutions, and assume they’ll continue to gain traction.

While it’s all x86 commodity hardware with a shiny nameplate, there’s a final ingredient in the secret sauce. Automation. This is critical for scaling out a complete solution. I see these challenges day in and day out already with customers in the field. Puppet, Chef, Ansible and others are already starting to solve these challenges in the enterprise. I don’t think anyone sees this going away.

“Complete virtualization” boils down to a single software stack delivering this solution regardless of the box or unit it’s delivered on. I’d say that Nutanix delivers this. Does this mean that I have to buy my solution from Nutanix? In what is called “converged infrastructure” I do. What added value does Nutanix hardware provide vs commodity hardware? (Support would be my first thought, known hardware configs etc… more on this later) The flipside would be, does this type of solution lock us into a familiar hardware paradigm that VMware and virtualization in general worked to free us from?

Having said all of that, I can’t see a reason that this can’t be bundled into a software package and still allow for full functionality. Tying hardware support and software support is a step backwards for where we’re going. It’s going to work for some customers, but I believe theres a risk for artificial value in hardware that is completely commoditized today. The value is in the software, and I’d assume it will be the continued path forward. VMware, Redhat, and even MS really nailed that point home.

As openstack continues to make inroads, I would hope to see full “complete virtualization” product(s) coming out soonish.  There’s certainly CI solutions in the works, nebula jumps to mind.

Trying to summarize before I ramble off, my initial thought is that Enterprise IT will still want choice for hardware.  Nutanix is delivering an AMAZING solution because the different software solutions aren’t tied together natively to make this an easy problem to solve. Trying to force a bundled solution of hardware and software to just deliver functionality that leverages commodity x86 hardware seems awkward.  Additionally, requiring new support chains within larger Enterprises can create more challenges can make adaption harder than it needs to be. I expect to see open source solutions (from Redhat, VMware or others) to deliver these types of solutions faster and gain additional traction in this space to server as an infrastructure foundation for Open/Cloudstack style products.  I think CI will fade away to “complete virtualization” software solutions.

All in all, I think this is a product wrapping around the idea of “software defined datacenters”.

* Complete virtualization is a horrible name for this. Ideas welcome.


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