Shifting Sands – Changing Alliances Underscore the Dynamism of the Infrastructure Systems Market

Richard Fichera

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:

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Dell Introduces FX system - the Shape of Infrastructure to Come?

Richard Fichera

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.

Forrester clients, I've published a Quick Take report on this, Quick Take: Dell's FX Architecture Holds Promise To Power Modern Services

Microsoft And Dell Change The Private/Hybrid Cloud Game With On-Premise Azure

Richard Fichera

What was announced?

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.

Why does it matter?

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IBM Sheds Yet Another Hardware Business - Pays To Get Rid Of Semiconductor Fabrication

Richard Fichera
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.
 
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Windows Server 2003 – A Very Unglamorous But Really Important Problem, Waiting To Bite

Richard Fichera

Very much in the shadows of all the press coverage and hysteria attendant on emerging cloud architectures and customer-facing systems of engagement are the nitty-gritty operational details that lurk like monsters in the swamp of legacy infrastructure, and some of them have teeth. And sometimes these teeth can really take a bite out of the posterior of an unprepared organization.

One of those toothy animals that I&O groups are increasingly encountering in their landscapes is the problem of what to do with Windows Server 2003 (WS2003). It turns out there are still approximately 11 million WS2003 systems running today, with another 10+ million instances running as VM guests. Overall, possibly more than 22 million OS images and a ton of hardware that will need replacing and upgrading. And increasing numbers of organizations have finally begun to take seriously the fact that Microsoft is really going to end support and updates as of July 2015.

Based on the conversations I have been having with our clients, the typical I&O group that is now scrambling to come up with a plan has not been willfully negligent, nor are they stupid. Usually WS2003 servers are legacy servers, quietly running some mature piece of code, often in satellite locations or in the shops of acquired companies. The workloads are a mix of ISV and bespoke code, but it is often a LOB-specific application, with the run-of-the-mill collaboration, infrastructure servers and, etc. having long since migrated to newer platforms. A surprising number of clients have told me that they have identified the servers, but not always the applications or the business owners – often a complex task for an old resource in a large company.

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Taking Stock Of Linux – Maturation Continues

Richard Fichera

[Apologies to all who have just read this post with a sense of deja-vue. I saw a typo, corrected it and then republished the blog, and it reset the publication date. This post was originally published several months ago.]

Having been away from the Linux scene for a while, I recently took a look at a newer version of Linux, SUSE Enterprise Linux Version 11.3, which is representative of the latest feature sets from the Linux 3.0 et seq kernel available to the entre Linux community, including SUSE, Red Hat, Canonical and others. It is apparent, both from the details on SUSE 11.3 and from perusing the documentation on other distribution providers, that Linux has continued to mature nicely as both a foundation for large scale-out clouds as well as a strong contender for the kind of enterprise workloads that previously were only comfortable on either RISC/UNIX systems or large Microsoft Server systems. In effect, Linux has continued its maturation to the point where its feature set and scalability begin to look like a top-tier UNIX from only a couple of years ago.

Among the enterprise technology that caught my eye:

  • Scalability – The Linux kernel now scales to 4096 x86 CPUs and up to 16 TB of memory, well into high-end UNIX server territory, and will support the largest x86 servers currently shipping.
  • I/O – The Linux kernel now includes btrfs (a geeky contraction of “Better File System), an open source file system that promises much of the scalability and feature set of Oracle’s popular ZFS file system including checksums, CoW, snapshotting, advanced logical volume management including thin provisioning and others. The latest releases also include advanced features like geoclustering and remote data replication to support advanced HA topologies.
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From Intel Developer Forum – New Xeon E5 v3 Promises A Respite For Capacity Planners

Richard Fichera

I'm at IDF, a major geekfest for the people interested in the guts of today’s computing infrastructure, and will be immersing myself in the flow for a couple of days. Before going completely off the deep end, I wanted to call out the announcement of the new Xeon E5. While I’ve discussed it in more depth in an accompanying Quick Take just published on our main website, I wanted to add some additional comments on its implications for data center operations, particularly in the areas of capacity planning and long-term capital budgeting.

For many years, each successive iteration of Intel’s and partners’ roadmaps has been quietly delivering a major benefit that seldom gets top billing – additional capacity within the same power and physical footprint, and the resulting ability for users from small enterprises to mega-scale service providers, to defer additional data spending capital expense.

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VMworld – Reflections on a Transformational Event

Richard Fichera

A group of us just published an analysis of VMworld (Breaking Down VMworld), and I thought I’d take this opportunity to add some additional color to the analysis. The report is an excellent synthesis of our analysis, the work of a talented team of collaborators with my two cents thrown in as well, but I wanted to emphasize a few additional impressions, primarily around storage, converged infrastructure, and the  overall tone of the show.

First, storage. If they ever need a new name for the show, they might consider “StorageWorld” – it seemed to me that just about every other booth on the show floor was about storage. Cloud storage, flash storage, hybrid storage, cheap storage, smart storage, object storage … you get the picture.[i] Reading about the hyper-growth of storage and the criticality of storage management to the overall operation of a virtualized environment does not drive the concept home in quite the same way as seeing 1000s of show attendees thronging the booths of the storage vendors, large and small, for days on end. Another leading indicator, IMHO, was the “edge of the show” booths, the cheaper booths on the edge of the floor, where smaller startups congregate, which was also well populated with new and small storage vendors – there is certainly no shortage of ambition and vision in the storage technology pipeline for the next few years.

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Extremes of x86 Servers Illustrate the Depth of the Ecosystem and the Diversity of Workloads

Richard Fichera

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about application-specific workloads and architectures (Optimize Scalalable Workload-Specific Infrastructure for Customer Experiences), and it got me to thinking about the extremes of the server spectrum – the very small and the very large as they apply to x86 servers. The range, and the variation in intended workloads is pretty spectacular as we diverge from the mean, which for the enterprise means a 2-socket Xeon server, usually in 1U or 2U form factors.

At the bottom, we find really tiny embedded servers, some with very non-traditional packaging. My favorite is probably the technology from Arnouse digital technology, a small boutique that produces computers primarily for military and industrial ruggedized environments.

Slightly bigger than a credit card, their BioDigital server is a rugged embedded server with up to 8 GB of RAM and 128 GB SSD and a very low power footprint. Based on an Atom-class CPU, thus is clearly not the choice for most workloads, but it is an exemplar of what happens when the workload is in a hostile environment and the computer maybe needs to be part of a man-carried or vehicle-mounted portable tactical or field system. While its creators are testing the waters for acceptance as a compute cluster with up to 4000 of them mounted in a standard rack, it’s likely that these will remain a niche product for applications requiring the intersection of small size, extreme ruggedness and complete x86 compatibility, which includes a wide range of applications from military to portable desktop modules.

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Some Friendly Advice For Dell Customer Service

Harley Manning

Right before school started last year I bought my son a new Dell laptop, a Windows 8 machine with a touchscreen. He loves it.

Fast forward to a month ago when our family rented a vacation house. My son brought his laptop along so he could play DVDs on it – online gaming was right out because we had purposefully rented a house with no Internet connection so we could unplug from work.

The first time my son tried to log on he found that Windows did not want to accept his password because he was not online. I’m going to skip the lengthy explanation of why this is not supposed to happen, why it happened anyway, all the things we tried to do to fix the problem ourselves, etc. (Maybe they’ll end up in a different post – who knows?)

Suffice it to say that since the laptop was still under warranty, and the problem seemed simple enough, I decide to call Dell. I assumed they’d encountered this situation a million times and could tell me a fix in their sleep. Well, I was wrong. After talking to five different people (could have been four, could have been six, I lost count after a while) I realized that I had made a mistake and hung up on the hold music.

Since I hate to let an interesting customer experience go to waste, though, I’d like to offer some hopefully helpful advice to the Dell customer service people – because, in fact, we do like that machine we bought from them and would love them to be around for our next laptop purchase. With that in mind, here are my top suggestions for the people who tried to help me as well as anyone else who runs a customer service operation.

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