I’ve written and commented in the past about the inevitability of a new class of infrastructure called “composable”, i.e. integrated server, storage and network infrastructure that allowed its users to “compose”, that is to say configure, a physical server out of a collection of pooled server nodes, storage devices and shared network connections.[i]
The early exemplars of this class were blade systems from Cisco, HP, IBM and others, which allowed some level of abstraction (a necessary precursor to composablity) of server UIDs including network addresses and storage bindings, and introduced the notion of templates for server configuration. More recently the Dell FX and the Cisco UCS M-Series servers introduced the notion of composing of servers from pools of resources within the bounds of a single chassis.[ii] While innovative, they were early efforts, and lacked a number of software and hardware features that were required for deployment against a wide spectrum of enterprise workloads.
This morning, HPE put a major marker down in the realm of composable infrastructure with the announcement of Synergy, its new composable infrastructure system. HPE Synergy represents a major step-function in capabilities for core enterprise infrastructure as it delivers cloud-like semantics to core physical infrastructure. Among its key capabilities:
The acquisition of EMC by Dell has is generating an immense amount of hype and prose, much of it looking forward at how the merged entity will try and compete in cloud, integrate and rationalize its new product line, and how Dell will pay for it (see Forrester report “Quick Take: Dell Buys EMC, Creating a New Legacy Vendor”). Interestingly not a lot has been written about the changes in the fundamental competitive faceoff between Dell and HP, both newly transformed by divestiture and by acquisition.
Yesterday the competition was straightforward and relatively easy to characterize. HP is the dominant enterprise server vendor, Dell a strong challenger, both with PCs and both with some storage IP that was good but in no sense dominant. Both have competent data center practices and embryonic cloud strategies which were still works in process. Post transformation we have a totally different picture with two very transformed companies:
A slimmer HP. HP is smaller (although $50B is not in any sense a small company), and bereft of its historical profit engine, the margins on its printer supplies. Free to focus on its core mandate of enterprise systems, software and services, HP Enterprise is positioning itself as a giant startup, focused and agile. Color me slightly skeptical but willing to believe that it can’t be any less agile than its precursor at twice the size. Certainly along with the margin contribution they lose the option to fight about budget allocations between enterprise and print/PC priorities.
As the digital economy gains momentum, CIOs will have to reassess and evolve their technology vendor portfolio. CIOs need to evaluate if their main technology vendors support the required new business practices and focus on crucial technologies.
Cisco has made massive investments in its portfolio and go-to-market strategies that help to sustain its role as a preferred vendor to most of its clients. We believe, however, that Cisco still has some distance to travel to transform its skillsets and business culture to become a trulystrategic technology provider. The recent leadership transition offers Cisco the opportunity to redouble its efforts to strengthen its digital and customer experience skills, flatten its corporate hierarchies, and build a strong digital ecosystem of software and services partners. Our main observations when scrutinizing Cisco as a vendor in the emerging digital ecosystem are that:
Cisco is on the path to becoming a partner of the CIO's technology agenda.Cisco has launched programs to change its operational setup, its business culture, its compensation incentives, and its skillsets. Its willingness to disrupt itself positions Cisco well to eventually transform from a network business into a global BT provider.
A gap remains between top management's vision and Cisco's go-to-market pitch.Cisco's vision to transform from selling networking boxes to selling architectures, solutions, and business outcomes is spot-on. However, we still perceive a go-to-market approach focused on engineering and products. This disconnect remains a challenge to becoming a strategic technology provider.
Intel has made no secret of its development of the Xeon D, an SOC product designed to take Xeon processing close to power levels and product niches currently occupied by its lower-power and lower performance Atom line, and where emerging competition from ARM is more viable.
The new Xeon D-1500 is clear evidence that Intel “gets it” as far as platforms for hyperscale computing and other throughput per Watt and density-sensitive workloads, both in the enterprise and in the cloud are concerned. The D1500 breaks new ground in several areas:
It is the first Xeon SOC, combining 4 or 8 Xeon cores with embedded I/O including SATA, PCIe and multiple 10 nd 1 Gb Ethernet ports.
It is the first of Intel’s 14 nm server chips expected to be introduced this year. This expected process shrink will also deliver a further performance and performance per Watt across the entire line of entry through mid-range server parts this year.
Why is this significant?
With the D-1500, Intel effectively draws a very deep line in the sand for emerging ARM technology as well as for AMD. The D1500, with 20W – 45W power, delivers the lower end of Xeon performance at power and density levels previously associated with Atom, and close enough to what is expected from the newer generation of higher performance ARM chips to once again call into question the viability of ARM on a pure performance and efficiency basis. While ARM implementations with embedded accelerators such as DSPs may still be attractive in selected workloads, the availability of a mainstream x86 option at these power levels may blunt the pace of ARM design wins both for general-purpose servers as well as embedded designs, notably for storage systems.
We have been watching many variants on efficient packaging of servers for highly scalable workloads for years, including blades, modular servers, and dense HPC rack offerings from multiple vendors, most of the highly effective, and all highly proprietary. With the advent of Facebook’s Open Compute Project, the table was set for a wave of standardized rack servers and the prospect of very cost-effective rack-scale deployments of very standardized servers. But the IP for intelligently shared and managed power and cooling at a rack level needed a serious R&D effort that the OCP community, by and large, was unwilling to make. Into this opportunity stepped Intel, which has been quietly working on its internal Rack Scale Architecture (RSA) program for the last couple of years, and whose first product wave was officially outed recently as part of an announcement by Intel and Ericsson.
While not officially announcing Intel’s product nomenclature, Ericsson announced their “HDS 8000” based on Intel’s RSA, and Intel representatives then went on to explain the fundamental of RSA, including a view of the enhancements coming this year.
RSA is a combination of very standardized x86 servers, a specialized rack enclosure with shared Ethernet switching and power/cooling, and layers of firmware to accomplish a set of tasks common to managing a rack of servers, including:
· Asset discovery
· Switch setup and management
· Power and cooling management across the servers with the rack
Last year I published a reasonably well-received research document on Hadoop infrastructure, “Building the Foundations for Customer Insight: Hadoop Infrastructure Architecture”. Now, less than a year later it’s looking obsolete, not so much because it was wrong for traditional (and yes, it does seem funny to use a word like “traditional” to describe a technology that itself is still rapidly evolving and only in mainstream use for a handful of years) Hadoop, but because the universe of analytics technology and tools has been evolving at light-speed.
If your analytics are anchored by Hadoop and its underlying map reduce processing, then the mainstream architecture described in the document, that of clusters of servers each with their own compute and storage, may still be appropriate. On the other hand, if, like many enterprises, you are adding additional analysis tools such as NoSQL databases, SQL on Hadoop (Impala, Stinger, Vertica) and particularly Spark, an in-memory-based analytics technology that is well suited for real-time and streaming data, it may be necessary to begin reassessing the supporting infrastructure in order to build something that can continue to support Hadoop as well as cater to the differing access patterns of other tools sets. This need to rethink the underlying analytics plumbing was brought home by a recent demonstration by HP of a reference architecture for analytics, publicly referred to as the HP Big Data Reference Architecture.
There is always a tendency to regard the major players in large markets as being a static background against which the froth of smaller companies and the rapid dance of customer innovation plays out. But if we turn our lens toward the major server vendors (who are now also storage and networking as well as software vendors), we see that the relatively flat industry revenues hide almost continuous churn. Turn back the clock slightly more than five years ago, and the market was dominated by three vendors, HP, Dell and IBM. In slightly more than five years, IBM has divested itself of highest velocity portion of its server business, Dell is no longer a public company, Lenovo is now a major player in servers, Cisco has come out of nowhere to mount a serious challenge in the x86 server segment, and HP has announced that it intends to split itself into two companies.
And it hasn’t stopped. Two recent events, the fracturing of the VCE consortium and the formerly unthinkable hook-up of IBM and Cisco illustrate the urgency with which existing players are seeking differential advantage, and reinforce our contention that the whole segment of converged and integrated infrastructure remains one of the active and profitable segments of the industry.
EMC’s recent acquisition of Cisco’s interest in VCE effectively acknowledged what most customers have been telling us for a long time – that VCE had become essentially an EMC-driven sales vehicle to sell storage, supported by VMware (owned by EMC) and Cisco as a systems platform. EMC’s purchase of Cisco’s interest also tacitly acknowledges two underlying tensions in the converged infrastructure space:
Dell today announced its new FX system architecture, and I am decidedly impressed.
Dell FX is a 2U flexible infrastructure building block that allows infrastructure architects to compose an application-appropriate server and storage infrastructure out of the following set of resources:
Multiple choices of server nodes, ranging from multi-core Atom to new Xeon E5 V3 servers. With configurations ranging from 2 to 16 server nodes per enclosure, there is pretty much a configuration point for most mainstream applications.
A novel flexible method of mapping disks from up to three optional disk modules, each with 16 drives - the mapping, controlled by the onboard management, allows each server to appear as if the disk is locally attached DASD, so no changes are needed in any software that thinks it is accessing local storage. A very slick evolution in storage provisioning.
A set of I/O aggregators for consolidating Ethernet and FC I/O from the enclosure.
All in all, an attractive and flexible packaging scheme for infrastructure that needs to be tailored to specific combinations of server, storage and network configurations. Probably an ideal platform to support the Nutanix software suite that Dell is reselling as well. My guess is that other system design groups are thinking along these lines, but this is now a pretty unique package, and merits attention from infrastructure architects.
On October 20 at TechEd, Microsoft quietly slipped in what looks like a potential game-changing announcement in the private/hybrid cloud world when they rolled out Microsoft Cloud Platform System (CPS), an integrated hardware/software system that combines an Azure-consistent on premise cloud with an optimized hardware stack from Dell.
While the timing of the event comes as a surprise, the fact that IBM has decided to unload its technically excellent but unprofitable semiconductor manufacturing operation does not, nor does its choice of Globalfoundries, with whom it has had a longstanding relationship.