Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cisco, unified computing, and automated infrastructure

Unified computing. Infrastructure orchestration. Adaptive infrastructure. Converged networks.

If you haven't heard of these terms yet, you will. They're poised to dominate the post-VMware vocabulary. And Soon.

While the IT industry has been fixated on hypervisors for the past year or two, a new realization is emerging - and companies like Cisco, HP and Egenera are hot on its tail. Although VMs have radically improved software portability and machine utilization, there has been a less visible, less sexy issue restraining it. It's the fact that the *physical* IT infrastructure remains static, limiting the real value of the VMs above it. For example, heavily consolidated servers may require 4 or more NICs, each sitting on different physical networks. To migrate (or fail-over) the VMs, another physical server has to be
exactly pre-provisioned to take over. That's still a manual process (read: bad & expensive) and ties-up resources.

In a recent blog by Padmasree Warrior, Cisco's CTO, she hinted at Cisco's upcoming foray into "unified computing" and Cisco's expected announcement to begin selling servers with integrated and poolable VMs, processors, I/O and network. In this way, even I/O can be virtualized and instantly re-configurable. An excerpt:
"... the compute and storage platform is architecturally 'unified' with the network and the virtualization platform. What are the benefits in doing this? Virtualization architectures today are very much “assembly required” islands where the burden of systems integration is on the customer. This increases costs and deployment times while decreasing efficiency. Unified Computing eliminates this manual integration in favor of an integrated architecture and breaks down the silos between compute, virtualization, and connect."
Similarly, Egenera has been offering a relatively high-end product for some years now called PAN (processing area network) Manager. Now bundled with Dell servers, PAN Manager creates instantly-reconfigurable pools of diskless servers, virtualized I/O, and network fabrics. In this way, servers running native software -- and/or virtual hosts -- can be made to instantly scale, replicate, fail-over, etc. without having to physically re-configure NICs or HBAs, and without having to re-cable a thing. All through using converged networking fabric software and management console.

Recently HP jumped part-way into the fray with its Insight Orchestration and Insight Recovery components that leverage HP's own hardware to provide a degree of physical configuration management and HA specifically for for their Proliant hardware. Like Egenera, these products will be marketed to manage infrastructure for both physical and virtual payloads.

Observing these trends, James Staten of Forrester observed "Adaptive infrastructure no longer vision" as a result of HP, Cisco and VMware announcements. For example,
"[Cisco] clearly sees the network convergence 10GbE will bring as a catalyst for its vision which speaks with a familiar ring about the orchestration and composability of resources. And with rumors spreading about a potential play on the server side, Cisco is garnering mindshare well ahead of its ability to deliver.
And this mindshare will absolutely accelerate the market maturity of unified, adaptive, orchestrated infrastructure. (Interestingly-enough, Staten also observed that the visions put forward by Cisco, HP and VMware are all proprietary. The Egenera/Dell play, however, is not.)

Thomas Bittman of Gartner nearly simultaneously observed the same, and later placed this move toward infrastructure managment in the context of cloud computing infrastructures. Speaking of the industry's direction,
"What is also apparent is there are many vendor attempts to achieve this, and they all bring their current strengths and products to bear to unify a portion of the fabric. I believe Cisco’s announcement may be “one large step for a vendor, one small step for vendor-kind”. It is safe to say this will be big for Cisco – and big for unifying networking and computing – but it may not be a huge state of the art shift for the industry. It is good to see Cisco aggressively joining the club of vendors pushing the state of the art in infrastructure forward, however.
Finally, you'll begin to hear more about some of the components making this possible - converged network adapters, such as those available from QLogic and Emulex. Although some similar technologies are already embedded within certain blade architectures, as well as in software such as that available from Egenera.

But what is obvious is that managing (dare I say virtualizing) physical infrastructure components (I/O, networking, storage connectivity) will be the simplification step that will provide much of the "break-out" strategy for IT Ops simplification and cost reduction. And, they are the perfect complement to mixed virtual and physical infrastructure.

The terms may not be at front-of-mind today, but you'll see them sooner than you know.

1 comment:

Douglas Gourlay said...

nice post Ken! As we indicated we see a future state where the compute, storage, virtualization, and network platforms become more tightly coupled- yet remain interconnected via open and interoperable standards.

IT has been great at automating everything except, well, IT. The next foray for IT is not dissimilar to the JIT manufacturing change that swept assembly lines of the late-stage industrial era. It's time for the Information Age to go through the same transformation...