Converged infrastructure is hot! In September alone, Cisco purchased Whiptail to “accelerate Cisco …momentum in converged infrastructure,” VMware announced VSAN, VCE unveiled “true” converged infrastructure, and Nutanix won Best of VMworld – Gold for the 3rd year in a row. But what exactly is converged infrastructure, and why is its importance escalating?
The definition of convergence depends upon whether the context is economics, mathematics, music, literature, etc. Even within the category of ‘computing and technology’, convergence can mean different things. Fortunately, Wiktionary provides an overarching definition: “The merging of distinct technologies, industries, or devices into a unified whole.”
Examples of successful technological convergence are not easy to find. Products, like biological species, become increasingly specialized over time in order to best exploit specific niches. Even the most popular convergence gadget ever introduced, the iPhone, was predicted by respected marketing gurus to eventually fail because single-purpose devices are nearly always superior to the converged variety.
Convergence flourishes when both cost and complexity are reduced. In telephony, for example, convergence of voice and data networks set the stage for VoIP. Duplicate hardware was eliminated along with the requirement to manage a separate PBX.
Why Converged Infrastructure?
Data center virtualization often finds IT staffs unprepared for the barrage of additional objects requiring management. The number of VMs typically far exceeds the number of former physical servers. IT must also deal with new virtualization hosts, vSwitches, vAdapters, and additional management tools. Troubleshooting complexity escalates as multiple vendors play an integral part in the infrastructure.
Virtualized data centers additionally play havoc with the traditional stovepipe IT organizational model. Server, storage and network teams can no longer work effectively in silos. But traditional infrastructure tools, processes and policies don’t lend well to efficient collaboration between the functional groups.
As a result of these challenges, virtualized customers are demanding solutions that enhance collaboration, reduce management complexity, and that help eliminate inevitable finger-pointing from different vendors. The data center manufacturers have responded. EMC joined with Cisco, VMware and Intel to create VCE. VCE’s Vblocks are selling at a one billion dollar run rate, leading all the major storage manufacturers who now also offer Converged Infrastructure (CI) solutions that combine compute, storage and network resources either as a product or as a reference architecture.
The bundling of compute and storage tiers together in one rack or chassis, however, does not constitute convergence – at least not as Wiktionary defines it. The underlying compute and storage tiers require duplicate hardware and separate management along with an intermediate network to move data continuously between them. A more applicable moniker would be “Adjacent Infrastructure.”
Enabling Convergence with Virtualization
VMware may be a partner in VCE, but it knows that the hypervisor is key for converging multiple services. VMware NSX and VSAN converge network and storage elements respectively as part of a software-defined data center. The underlying hardware elements become commoditized as the intelligence moves up into the software.
Nutanix’ Anjan Srinivas recently wrote a blog post welcoming VMware to the software-defined storage (SDS) club. Nutanix leverages the hypervisor to virtualize the storage controllers found running traditional SANs. Transforming storage into a software-defined service enables convergence with software-defined compute (i.e. virtual machines) into a single system. SANs are eliminated while both storage and compute are administered holistically through the virtualization management console.
True Converged Infrastructure
VCE is making a big show – including a countdown clock, for the unveiling of “true converged infrastructure.” Being snarky in nature, my first thought was to wonder if existing Vblocks represent “False Converged Infrastructure.”
But, to be fair, VCE uses the convergence term to connote integration of a complex application stack with the underlying infrastructure. I assume “true converged infrastructure” will be along these lines and may also include continued improvements in consolidated management of the different tiers. I doubt that it heralds a move away from proprietary arrays.
The Inevitability of Converged Infrastructure
Converged infrastructure, while new in the enterprise space, certainly is not new. Google rolled out commodity servers with local storage over ten years ago – utilizing the Google File System (GFS) and other technologies to enable a very scalable, resilient and low cost converged infrastructure.
This architecture gave Google a huge advantage over the other Internet leaders of the day who were still using SANs. Robin Harris of StorageMojo estimated that Yahoo, which was a very large NetApp shop, spent 3 to 10 times more on storage than Google. He said that for Yahoo, it was like bringing a knife to a gun fight.
In keeping with its philosophy of an open systems approach, Google published a paper on the GFS in 2003. This eventually led to adoption of a similar architecture by Amazon with DynamoDB, by Facebook with Haystack and by Yahoo with Hadoop. Twitter, Salesforce, eBay and even Microsoft Azure all now also utilize scale-out local storage infrastructures for their primary businesses rather than SANs.
A distributed file system benefits cloud providers due to a limited number of applications requiring customized APIs to utilize it. The multitude of off-the-shelf applications used by commercial and government organizations has long made similar adoption unrealistic.
This is no longer the case. Highly virtualized data centers now enable enterprises to incorporate SDS as an integral part of a scale-out converged infrastructure. They can achieve the same benefits as the cloud providers including reduced costs, consolidated and simplified management, less vulnerability to downtime, etc.
The superiority of scale-out converged infrastructure is validated by its widespread adoption in the demanding cloud-provider space. While legacy storage manufacturers today are successfully incorporating various convergence permutations, the SDS variety of converged infrastructure increasingly will replace proprietary arrays as the data center standard.
Disclaimer: I work for Nutanix, but the opinions expressed are my own. Nutanix’ Virtual Computing Platform is variously referred to as converged infrastructure or hyper-convergence.
Thanks to Bas Raayman (@BasRaayman), Anjan Srinivas (@anjans) and Sudheesh Nair (@sudheenair) for their reviews and suggestions.
The Business Value of Converged Infrastructure Technologies. 08/28/2013. David Floyer. Wikibon
Nutanix Receives Best of VMworld Recognition for the Past Three Consecutive Years. 08/28/2103. Nutanix Press Release
VMware VSAN Validates an Increasing Shift to Software-Defined Storage. 06/16/2013. Anjan Srinivas. Nutanix Web site
VCE Vblock Demand Hits Billion Dollar Run Rate Three Years After Launch. 02/20/2013. Cisco Web Site
Google Throws Open Doors to Its Top-Secret Datacenter. 10/17/2012. Steven Levy. Wired.
Converged Infrastructure Takes the Market by Storm. 08/22/2012. David Vellante. Wikibon.
Ex-Google Man Sells Search Genius to Rest of World. 12/21/2011. Cade Metz. Wired
The Battle for Convergence. 12/12/2012. Stuart Miniman. Wikibon Blog.
The Efficient Cloud: All of Salesforce runs on only 1,000 servers. 03/23/2009. Erik Schofeld. Techcrunch
How Yahoo Can Beat Google. 07/05/2007. Robin Harris. StorageMojo
iPhone Challenge: Marketing Pundits Unite. 04/30/2007. Seth Godin
The Google File System. Sanjay Ghemawat, Howard Gobioff, and Shun-Tak Leung. Google Research Publications