In the last couple of weeks, I finally put a couple of pieces together . . . the tech industry is pushing hard, down two parallel tracks, toward much more resource-efficient computing architectures.
Track 1: Integrated systems. Computer suppliers are putting hardware components (including compute, network, and storage) together with middleware and application software in pre-integrated packages. The manufacturers will do assembly and testing of these systems in their factories, rather than on the customer's site. And they will tailor the system — to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the system — to the characteristics of the workload(s) it will be running.
The idea is to use general-purpose components (microprocessors, memory, network buses, and the like) to create special-purpose systems on a mass-customization basis. This trend has been evident for a while in the Oracle Exadata and Cisco UCS systems; IBM's Pure systems introductions push it even further into pre-configured applications and systems management.
Track 2. Modular data centers. Now, zoom out from individual computing systems to aggregations of those systems into data centers. And again, assemble as much of the componentry as possible in the factory rather than on-site. Vendors like Schneider, Emerson, and the systems shops like IBM and HP are creating a design approach and infrastructure systems that will allow data centers to be designed in modular fashion, with much of the equipment like air handling and power trucked to the customer's site, set up in the parking lot, and quickly turned on.
Last week it was Dell’s turn to tout its new wares, as it pulled back the curtain on its 12th-eneration servers and associated infrastructure. I’m still digging through all the details, but at first glance it looks like Dell has been listening to a lot of the same customer input as HP, and as a result their messages (and very likely the value delivered) are in many ways similar. Among the highlights of Dell’s messaging are:
Faster provisioning with next-gen agentless intelligent controllers — Dell’s version is iDRAC7, and in conjunction with its LifeCyle Controller firmware, Dell makes many of the same claims as HP, including faster time to provision and maintain new servers, automatic firmware updates, and many fewer administrative steps, resulting in opex savings.
Intelligent storage tiering and aggressive use of flash memory, under the aegis of Dell’s “Fluid Storage” architecture, introduced last year.
A high-profile positioning for its Virtual Network architecture, building on its acquisition of Force10 Networks last year. With HP and now Dell aiming for more of the network budget in the data center, it’s not hard to understand why Cisco was so aggressive in pursuing its piece of the server opportunity — any pretense of civil coexistence in the world of enterprise networks is gone, and the only mutual interest holding the vendors together is their customers’ demand that they continue to play well together.
Last year at VMworld I noted Xsigo Systems, a small privately held company at VMworld showing their I/O Director technology, which delivereda subset of HP Virtual Connect or Cisco UCS I/O virtualization capability in a fashion that could be consumed by legacy rack-mount servers from any vendor. I/O Director connects to the server with one or more 10 G Ethernet links, and then splits traffic out into enterprise Ethernet and FC networks. On the server side, the applications, including VMware, see multiple virtual NICs and HBAs courtesy of Xsigo’s proprietary virtual NIC driver.
Controlled via Xsigo’s management console, the server MAC and WWNs can be programmed, and the servers can now connect to multiple external networks with fewer cables and substantially lower costs for NIC and HBA hardware. Virtualized I/O is one of the major transformative developments in emerging data center architecture, and will remain a theme in Forrester’s data center research coverage.
This year at VMworld, Xsigo announced a major expansion of their capabilities – Xsigo Server Fabric, which takes the previous rack-scale single-Xsigo switch domains and links them into a data-center-scale fabric. Combined with improvements in the software and UI, Xsigo now claims to offer one-click connection of any server resource to any network or storage resource within the domain of Xsigo’s fabric. Most significantly, Xsigo’s interface is optimized to allow connection of VMs to storage and network resources, and to allow the creation of private VM-VM links.
A project I’m working on for an approximately half-billion dollar company in the health care industry has forced me to revisit Hyper-V versus VMware after a long period of inattention on my part, and it has become apparent that Hyper-V has made significant progress as a viable platform for at least medium enterprises. My key takeaways include:
Hyper-V has come a long way and is now a viable competitor in Microsoft environments up through mid-size enterprise as long as their DR/HA requirements are not too stringent and as long as they are willing to use Microsoft’s Systems Center, Server Management Suite and Performance Resource Optimization as well as other vendor specific pieces of software as part of their management environment.
Hyper-V still has limitations in VM memory size, total physical system memory size and number of cores per VM compared to VMware, and VMware boasts more flexible memory management and I/O options, but these differences are less significant that they were two years ago.
For large enterprises and for complete integrated management, particularly storage, HA, DR and automated workload migration, and for what appears to be close to 100% coverage of workload sizes, VMware is still king of the barnyard. VMware also boasts an incredibly rich partner ecosystem.
For cloud, Microsoft has a plausible story but it is completely wrapped around Azure.
While I have not had the time (or the inclination, if I was being totally honest) to develop a very granular comparison, VMware’s recent changes to its legacy licensing structure (and subsequent changes to the new pricing structure) does look like license cost remains an attraction for Microsoft Hyper-V, especially if the enterprise is using Windows Server Enterprise Edition.
Not to be left out of the announcement fever that has gripped vendors recently, Cisco today announced several updates to their UCS product line aimed at easing potential system bottlenecks by improving the whole I/O chain between the network and the servers, and improving management, including:
Improved Fabric Interconnect (FI) – The FI is the top of the UCS hardware hierarchy, a thinly disguised Nexus 5xxx series switch that connects the UCS hierarchy to the enterprise network and runs the UCS Manager (UCSM) software. Previously the highest end FI had 40 ports, each of which had to be specifically configured as Ethernet, FCoE, or FC. The new FI, the model 6248UP has 48 ports, each one of which can be flexibly assigned as up toa 10G port for any of the supported protocols. In addition to modestly raising the bandwidth, the 6248UP brings increased flexibility and a claimed 40% reduction in latency.
New Fabric Extender (FEX) – The FEXC connects the individual UCS chassis with the FI. With the new 2208 FEX, Cisco doubles the bandwidth between the chassis and the FI.
VIC1280 Virtual Interface Card (VIC) – At the bottom of the management hierarchy the new VIC1280 quadruples the bandwidth to each individual server to a total of 80 GB. The 80 GB can be presented as up to 8 10 GB physical NICs or teamed into a pair fo 40 Gb NICS, with up to 256 virtual devices (vNIC, vHBA, etc presented to the software running on the servers.
HP this week really stirred up the Converged Infrastructure world by introducing three new solution offerings, one an incremental evolution of an existing offering and the other two representing new options which will put increased pressure on competitors. The trio includes:
HP VirtualSystem - HP’s answer to vStart, Flex Pod and vBlocks, VirtualSystem is a pre-integrated stack of servers (blade and racked options), HP network switches and HP Converged Storage (3Par and Left Hand Networks iSCSI) along with software, including the relevant OS and virtualization software. Clients can choose from four scalable deployment options that support up to 750, 2500 or 6000 virtual servers or up to 3000 virtual clients. It supports Microsoft and Linux along with VMware and Citrix. Since this product is new, announced within weeks of the publication of this document, we have had limited exposure it, but HP claims that they have added significant value in terms of optimized infrastructure, automation of VM deployment, management and security. In addition, HP will be offering a variety of services and hosting options along with VirtualSystem. Forrester expects that VirtualSystem will change the existing competitive dynamics and will result in a general uptick of interest it similar solutions. HP is positioning VirtualSystem as a growth path to CloudSystem, with what they describe as a “streamlined” upgrade path to a hybrid cloud environment.
Egenera, arguably THE pioneer in what the industry is now calling converged infrastructure, has had a hard life. Early to market in 2000 with a solution that was approximately a decade ahead of its time, it offered an elegant abstraction of physical servers into what chief architect Maxim Smith described as “fungible and anonymous” resources connected by software defined virtual networks. Its interface was easy to use, allowing the definition of virtualized networks, NICs, servers with optional failover and pools of spare resources with a fluidity that has taken the rest of the industry almost 10 years to catch up to. Unfortunately this elegant presentation was chained to a completely proprietary hardware architecture, which encumbered the economics of x86 servers with an obsolete network fabric, expensive system controller and physical architecture (but it was the first vendor to include blue lights on its servers). The power of the PanManager software was enough to keep the company alive, but not enough to overcome the economics of the solution and put them on a fast revenue path, especially as emerging competitors began to offer partial equivalents at lower costs. The company is privately held and does not disclose revenues, but Forrester estimates it is still less than $100 M in annual revenues.
In approximately 2006, Egenera began the process of converting its product to a pure software offering capable of running on commodity server hardware and standard Ethernet switches. In subsequent years they have announced distribution arrangements with Fujitsu (an existing partner for their earlier products) and an OEM partnership with Dell, which apparently was not successful, since Dell subsequently purchased Scalent, an emerging software competitor. Despite this, Egenera claims that its software business is growing and has been a factor in the company’s first full year of profitability.
NetApp recently announced that it was acquiring Akorri, a small but highly regarded provider of management solutions for virtualized storage environments. All in all, this is yet another sign of the increasingly strategic importance of virtualized infrastructure and the need for existing players, regardless of how strong their positions are in their respective silos, to acquire additional tools and capabilities for management of an extended virtualized environment.
NetApp, while one of the strongest suppliers in the storage industry, not only faces continued pressure from not only EMC, which owns VMware and has been on a management software acquisition binge for years, but also renewed pressure from IBM and HP, who are increasingly tying their captive storage offerings into their own integrated virtualized infrastructure offerings. This tighter coupling of proprietary technology, while not explicitly disenfranchising external storage vendors, will still tighten the screws slightly and reduce the number of opportunities for NetApp to partner with them. Even Dell, long regarded as the laggard in high-end enterprise presence, has been ramping up its investment management and ability to deliver integrated infrastructure, including both the purchase of storage technology and a very clear signal with its run at 3Par and recent investments in companies such as Scalent (see my previous blog on Dell as an enterprise player and my colleague Andrew Reichman’s discussion of the 3Par acquisition) that it wants to go even further as a supplier of integrated infrastructure.
I just spent some time talking to ScaleMP, an interesting niche player that provides a server virtualization solution. What is interesting about ScaleMP is that rather than splitting a single physical server into multiple VMs, they are the only successful offering (to the best of my knowledge) that allows I&O groups to scale up a collection of smaller servers to work as a larger SMP.
Others have tried and failed to deliver this kind of solution, but ScaleMP seems to have actually succeeded, with a claimed 200 customers and expectations of somewhere between 250 and 300 next year.
Their vSMP product comes in two flavors, one that allows a cluster of machines to look like a single system for purposes of management and maintenance while still running as independent cluster nodes, and one that glues the member systems together to appear as a single monolithic SMP.
Does it work? I haven’t been able to verify their claims with actual customers, but they have been selling for about five years, claim over 200 accounts, with a couple of dozen publicly referenced. All in all, probably too elaborate a front to maintain if there was really nothing there. The background of the principals and the technical details they were willing to share convinced me that they have a deep understanding of the low-level memory management, prefectching, and caching that would be needed to make a collection of systems function effectively as a single system image. Their smaller scale benchmarks displayed good scalability in the range of 4 – 8 systems, well short of their theoretical limits.
My quick take is that the software works, and bears investigation if you have an application that:
Either is certified to run with ScaleMP (not many), or one where that you control the code.
You understand the memory reference patterns of the application, and
There has been a lot of press about IBM’s acquisition of BNT (Blade Network Technologies) focusing on the economics and market share of BNT as a competitor to Cisco and HP’s ProCurve/3Com franchise. But at its heart the acquisition is more about defending and expanding a position in the emerging converged server, networking, and storage infrastructure segment than it is about raw switch port market share. It is also a powerful vindication of the proposition that infrastructure convergence is driving major realignment in the vendor industry.
Starting with HP’s success with its c-Class blade servers and Virtual Connect technology, and escalating with Cisco’s entrance into the server market, IBM continued its investment in its Virtual Fabric and Open Fabric Manager technology, heavily leveraging BNT’s switch platforms. At some point it became clear that BNT was a critical element of IBM’s convergence strategy, with IBM’s plans now heavily dependent on a vendor with whom they had an excellent, but non-exclusive relationship, and one whose acquisition by another player could severely compromise their product plans. Hence the acquisition. Now that it owns BNT, IBM can capitalize on its excellent edge network technology for further development of its converged infrastructure strategy without hesitation about further leveraging BNT’s technology.