Thursday, March 5, 2009

What if software virtualization is the tip of the iceberg?

Yesterday I attended the IDC Directions conference in San Jose. Chock-full of great presentations, networking and predictions, topped-off with a closing keynote from Nick Carr on The Big Switch.

Over lunch, I was able to sit-in on a discussion with two IDC analysts discussing how virtualization is expanding the role of the network, and the steps IT operations were taking to simplify the data center. It was all about unifying and consolidating the data center network, they said.

"But aren't we unifying and consolidating servers too?" I thought. And then it occurred to me that perhaps there is a logical progression of simplification that IT is doing, without knowing it's doing it. Maybe it's the "consolidation maturity model" or just stages of IT's "simplification progression." Either way, it seems to dovetail with how the industry is progressing.

Seems to me these 4 stages happen roughly in order:

1. Hardware consolidation. We're in the thick of this today. When most IT professionals think "virtualization" they are mostly wanting to consolidate/reduce hardware. Software is abstracted away from the CPU, making management of applications more efficient. Players: VMware, Citrix, MSFT, Parallels, etc.

2. I/O consolidation: As I've pointed out in the past, I/O has unfortunately been tightly-bound to the CPU, creating complexity in configuration, addressing, wiring, etc. Instead, I/O can be abstracted in software, and then logically instantiated/assigned. The industry is now beginning to realize that I/O consolidation -- especially in the world of many VMs per host -- is helping to simplify IT management. Players: 3Leaf, Xsigo, etc.

3. Network consolidation: We're just beginning to scratch the surface of network consolidation, with a few competing technologies in the space. But essentially it's about converging data, storage, and even out-of-band management information along a single (high bandwidth, low-latency) wire. This concept is an ideal complement to I/O consolidation. All major networking vendors, plus peripheral vendors like Qlogic and Emulex

4. Compute consolidation: Perhaps the final, but highest-value, step... and it's very different from Hardware consolidation. This is about being able to create stateless CPUs, with the abililty to logically assign them on-demand, to different workloads. It is about creating a pool of CPUs (similar to a pool of network resources or a pool I/O, above) that can be used most efficiently, because they are ultimately re-assignable. Players: HP, IBM, Egenera

Now, this progression doesn't have to be followed strictly. Most of the industry is certainly doing #1, with their favorite VM vendor. Point-product vendors are pushing #2, while networking vendors are pushing #3. And the forward-thinking folks are already pursuing all four to create truly dynamic IT foundations.

But it is seeming to me that what we see as Virtualization (hardware consolidation) is just one of a few upcoming "waves" of change about to simplify how IT is operated and managed.

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