Thursday, May 6, 2010

Converged Infrastructure. Part 1

Since joining Egenera, I've been championing what's now being termed Converged Infrastructure (aka unified computing). It's an exciting and important part of IT management, demonstrated by the fact that all major vendors are offering some form of the technology. But it sometimes takes a while for folks (my analyst friends included) to get their heads around understanding it.  So I'm going to take a stab at a multi-part Primer on the topic.
Part 1: What is Converged Infrastructure, and how it will change data center management

Converged Infrastructure and Unified Computing are both terms referring to technology where the complete server profile, including I/O (NICs, HBAs, KVM), networking (VLANs, IP load balancing, etc.), and storage connectivity (LUN mapping, switch control) are all abstracted and defined/configured in software. The result is a pooling of physical servers, network resources and storage resources that can be assigned on-demand.

This approach lets IT operators rapidly repurpose servers – or entire environments – without having to physically reconfigure I/O components by hand—and without the requirement of hypervisors.  It massively reduces the quantity and expense of the physical I/O and networking components as well as the time required to configure them. A converged infrastructure approach offers an elegant, simple-to-manage approach to data center infrastructure administration. 

From an architectural perspective, this approach may also be referred to as a compute fabric or Processing Area Network. Because the physical CPU state (i.e. naming and configuration of I/O, networking and storage naming) is completely abstracted away, the CPUs become stateless and therefore can be reassigned extremely easily creating a “fabric” of components, analogous to how SANs assign logical storage LUNs.  And, through I/O virtualization, both data and storage transports can also be converged, further simplifying the physical network infrastructure down to a single wire.

 The result is a “wire-once” set of pooled bare-metal CPUs and network resources that can be assigned on demand, defining their logical configurations and network connections instantly.

BTW, there is another nice resource -- a white paper commissioned by HP (!) executed by Michelle Bailey at IDC. In it she defines what is a converged system:
"The term converged system refers to a new set of enterprise products that package server, storage, and networking architectures together as a single unit and utilize built-in service-oriented management tools for the purpose of driving efficiencies in time to deployment and simplifying ongoing operations. Within a converged system, each of the compute, storage, and network devices are aware of each other and are tuned for higher performance than if constructed in a purely modular architecture. While a converged system may be constructed of modular components that can be swapped in and out as scaling requires, ultimately the entire system is integrated at either the hardware layer or the software layer.
Converged Infrastructure and Software Virtualization

A Converged Infrastructure is different from—but analogous to—hypervisor-based server virtualization.  Think of hypervisors as operating “above” the CPU, abstracting software (applications and O/S) from the CPU; think of a Converged Infrastructure as operating “below” the CPU, abstracting network and storage connections. However, note that converged Infrastructure doesn't operate via a software layer the way that a hypervisor does. And converged Infrastructure is possible whether or not server virtualization is present.

Converged Infrastructure and server virtualization can complement each other producing significant cost and operational benefits. For example, consider a physical host failure where the entire machine, network and storage configuration needs to be replicated on a new physical server. Using Converged Infrastructure, IT Ops can quickly replace the physical server using a spare “bare metal” server.  A new host can be created on the fly, all the way down to the same NIC, HBA and networking configurations of the original server.

A Converged Infrastructure can re-create a physical server (or virtual host) as well as its networking and storage configuration on any “cold” bare-metal server.  And in addition, it can re-create an entire environment of servers using bare-metal infrastructure at a different location as well. Thus it is particularly well-suited to provide both high-availability (HA) as well as Disaster Recovery (DR) in mixed physical/virtual environments – eliminating the need for complex clustering solutions. And in doing so, a single Converged Infrastructure system can replace numerous point-products for physical/virtual server management, network management, I/O management, configuration management, HA and DR.

Converged Infrastructure - Simplifying Management for “The other half” of the Data Center

In the manner that server virtualization has grown to become the dominant data center management approach for software, converged infrastructure is poised to become the dominant management approach for “the other 50%” of the data center – its infrastructure.

However adoption will take place gradually, for a few reasons:
  • IT can only absorb so much at once. Most often, converged infrastructure is consumed after IT has come up the maturity curve after having cut their teeth on OS virtualization. Once that initiative is under way, IT then begins looking for other sources of cost take-out.... and the data center infrastructure is the logical next step.
  • Converged infrastructure is still relatively new. While the market considers OS virtualization to be relatively mature, converging infrastructure is less-well understood.
But there is one universal approach that can overcome these hesitations -- money.  So, in my next installment, I'll do a deeper dive into the really fantastic economics and cost take-out opportunities of converging infrastructure...

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