Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Quantifying Data Center Simplification

Ever read that marketing fluff that says "blah blah simplifies your data center"? Ever wonder what that means and whether there is any quantifiable measure?

Infrastructure & management simplification is more than simply reducing ports, cable counts, and more than simply virtualizing/consolidating. (In fact, if done improperly, each of these approaches ultimately adds management complexity)

To me, true simplification isn't 'masking' complexity with more management and abstraction layers. Rather, it's about taking a systems-style approach to re-thinking the componentry and interaction of items across both software and infrastructure. For example, independently-managed components (and management products) can consist of
  • Server/CPU status, workload repurposing
  • Server console/KVMs
  • Physical app management
  • Virtual app management
  • Physical HA/DR
  • Virtual HA/DR
  • Storage connectivity
  • I/O management
  • Networking & switch management
  • software systems Management
It's not just about reducing cables & ports!

Three observations I've recently made have driven this concept home to me.

1. The arising of true Infrastructure management: systems like PAN Manager which essentially manage all of the above bullets together as a true "system" (see my earlier post on 6 simple steps to take to managing IT infrastructure) Nowhere else will you see as many as 6-7 complex IT management functions reduced to a single console.

2. An average case-study of a PAN Manager user. For example take a major Online Grocer dealing with a storefront website (environment was BEA WebLogic, Oracle9i RAC, CRM, business intelligence, etc.) for delivery admin and payment processing. Complexity consisted of traditional systems management, and then the addition of clustering and the 1:1 duplication of server, network and SW tools.

With a systems-style management approach, ultimately, servers, ports, cables, NICs, HBAs, disks, recovery systems -- and most of all, admin time and OpEx -- fell dramatically with a PAN-managed, systems approach to simplification. That took componentry from ~1,500 "moving parts" down to under 200. To me, "elegant engineering" equates to simplification.

3. Major equipment vendors are offering similar infrastructure management products to those from Egenera. But the "systems" issue still persists, even if some of them have solved for the networking, I/O & switching parts. So, after a pretty detailed analysis I did, it's still obvious that multiple "point products" are still needed to operate these products. Those products still represent a non-systems approach, to me at least.

What would you rather manage? A bunch of point products that mask complexity, or a true system that re-thinks how data center infrastructure is run? I'm thinking the PAN Manager-run system :)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Why (and How) Low-Cost Servers Will Dominate

Or, why high-end servers will be obviated by software...

I begin this blog with a true story. 2 weeks ago I was training a new Account Executive about the virtues of server automation, I/O virtualization, converged networking, etc. To his credit (or mine?), within the first hour he blurts out "then if a customer uses this stuff, they should be able get five-9's of availability from run-of-the-mill hardware, right?"

And that's the point: The age of high-end, super-redundant, high-reliability servers is slowly coming to an end. They're being replaced by volume servers and intelligent networks that "self heal". (Head nod to IBM for coining the term, but never following through)

I pointed-out to my trainee that folks like Amazon and other mega-providers don't fill their data centers with high-end HP, Sun or IBM gear anymore. Rather, companies like Google use scads of super-inexpensive servers. And if/when the hardware craps-out, it is software that automatically swaps-in a new resource.

It's like the transformation back in the late 1700's with Eli Whitney and mass production, where mechanical systems - including the now-famous Colt revolver - were made to simple, standard, interchangeable specifications. Similarly today, rather than hand-crafting every system stack (software, VMs, networking - everything) we're moving to a world where simple, standard HW and configurations can do the 99% of the job. And it's the software management that simply works-around failed components. This trend in IT was noticed back in 2006 (probably earlier) as the "Cheap Revolution" pointed out in a now-famous Forbes Article.

So what's the punch-line here? I believe that the vendors who'll "win" will be those who are effective at producing low-cost, volume servers with standard networking... But most of all, the winners will be effective at wrapping their wares in a system that is designed for automatic interchangeability.

To wit: in a recent IDC study, while all server sales segments were forecast to fall in 2010, the Volume segment was the only one expected to experience a gain.

I believe that the days for buying super-high-end, high-reliability servers are numbered (for all but some of the most critical telco-grade apps). The Dells of the world have an opportunity; and the Suns, HPs and IBMs will need to re-think the future of their "high-end".

Were I a vendor with a strong volume server play, I would continue to push on hardware pricing, and begin to emphasize a hardware/network self-management strategy.

One other (slightly random) analogy. Shai Agassi's Better Place company *isn't* a car company. It's really a software and networking company. With the right network and infrastructure, the vehicles are efficient and always have a 'filling' station to keep running. Similarly, IT is transforming from it "being about the hardware" to being about how the hardware is networked and managed. Think about it.