One box to rule them all

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It’s still early days for converged infrastructure in India. However, the advent of the Cloud and demand from SMBs are expected to lead to wider adoption of these solutions. By Mehak Chawla

Gone are the days when the IT infrastructure of an organization was all about diversification. It’s the era of simplification and there is little wonder that convergence sits right at the top of the list when it comes to simplifying the IT environment.

Converged infrastructure is, in layman’s terms, a single box solution for diverse IT needs. The concept climbed up the popularity charts when CIOs began finding it increasingly taxing to grapple with the complexity that was fast becoming a part of the IT infrastructure. Converged infrastructure gained ground as an IT infrastructure package that could provide an organization with the basic pillars of IT—servers, networking and storage—knitted together in a single box. Over the past half a decade, converged infrastructure has managed to garner some numbers while attaining new definitions.

Although there are many big players involved in the convergence game, there aren’t any concrete numbers available. The reason, say experts, is primarily the lack of a proper definition, owing to the fact that the concept is still in infancy in India.

Explained Rajesh Rege, Sr. Vice President – Data Center and Cloud Business, India & SAARC, Cisco, “For some, converged infrastructure is an aggregation of their software, compute, networking and storage stacks. For others, it’s an interaction between their network and storage. The definitions are yet to fully evolve.”

That is the reason as to why there are no definite numbers available with respect to the size of the converged infrastructure market. Arun Sridhar, Vice President, Infrastructure Services, Capgemini, shed some light on this, “The number is tough to access right now as different people have different views and the concept of converged infrastructure is fairly new. It is tough to come up with a definitive number that can be associated with it. EMC and Cisco have major investments in this space and have done business worth about $100 Million in FY 2010 and 2011 and are expecting the market to mature, growing to $1 billion by 2013. VCE has also announced that the market is currently at about $100 million by various players till FY 2011 and other players are entering the foray making significant investments in the process.”

Even though there is no clarity on numbers, what we do have are some rather interesting trends in the converged infrastructure space, together with some calculated predictions as to what it is going to look like in the future.

Near term prospects
  • Converged infrastructure offerings will play side-by-side with best-of-breed infrastructure considering that not every project involves setting up from scratch
  • OEMs will buy out smaller, specialist companies in order to increase the value proposition of their stack
  • The offerings will become more dynamic in terms of configurations and come to address a larger prospective user base
  • Customers will slowly embrace such offerings as they need to have trained manpower, assess risk and have management buy-in for rip and replace
  • More applications will be tested and certified over time
Source: Capgemini

Convergent journey

At the primary level, the evolving needs of enterprises are driving the concept of convergence in the IT environment. Most organizations today are grappling with the complexity of managing their hardware, software and application layers. On top of this, there are management tools for servers, storage and software all of which come with different interfaces. The advent of convergence that happened around 2009 took place in order to ease this complexity. Explained Faisal M Paul, Head, Marketing & Solution Alliances, Enterprise Servers, Storage & Networking Enterprise Business, HP, “Over the last couple of years, there’s been a trend towards buying IT in a pool of resources rather than in isolation.”

However, converged infrastructure is not an outright option for enterprises. What an organization needs is a strategy in order to evolve towards a converged infrastructure set-up. Elaborated Shuja Mirza, Regional Presales Head, North, EMC India, “Converged infrastructure is certainly a journey. Organizations can take two routes. They can either set up a migration strategy or have a cut off date for their legacy infrastructure. Other customers choose to do it in parts like beginning with two applications and going about it as and when they feel ready.”

The focal point of converged infrastructure is that it is all about pre-configured and pre-tested solutions so that you don’t have to optimize them for your apps. In an era where the go-to-market time is shrinking, the IT infrastructure needs to be much more agile. That is why a lot of organizations are considering opting for converged infrastructure in their refresh cycles.

Added Rege of Cisco, “It’s easier to deploy new solutions over converged infrastructure. The need to deploy newer solutions rapidly is driving the growth of this category.”

Converged infrastructure is being labeled as a blueprint for futuristic data centers that will eventually replace the inflexible IT silos. Another benefit that converged infrastructure delivers is that of pre-qualified, factory integrated solutions leading to faster time to go live while reducing the overall cost of integration.

Multiple vendor management, something that has long been a pain point for a CIO, also gets addressed with converged infrastructure. Since the solution is pre-packaged, there is only one neck to choke, one contract to manage and one vendor to approach.

While above mentioned are all reasons for the adoption of these solutions, there is another trigger that is pushing converged infrastructure to the forefront namely Cloud computing.

The Cloud trigger

It is estimated that 40% of organizations will begin a move to a virtualized environment in the next 12 to 24 months. Converged infrastructure, together with virtualization is considered the primary building block for the Cloud. Explained BS Nagarajan, Country SE Manager, VMware, “Virtualization is the first step towards infrastructure consolidation. About four to five years ago, virtualization was considered to be complex as it was believed that it brought in an additional layer to manage. However, it is not considered to be a challenge any more.”

Enthusiasm around the Cloud is something that is accelerating the growth of other technologies like converged infrastructure and virtualization. Three primary components of data center infrastructure namely, server, storage and network along with monitoring/management and orchestration are integrated as part of a converged infrastructure offering. The drive is to have these building blocks certified against leading application stacks such as SAP or Oracle (for both apps and database), Exchange and other workloads.

There is a trend towards making these blocks smart and state-less. The compute blocks become truly plug and play here. There is no administrative effort towards reconfiguration of replaced components in terms of aspects such as the MAC address, WWN etc, reducing the overall management cost. The other trend is in terms of FC and IP network convergence as well as the virtualization of the same via NPIV, CNA etc.

According to Sridhar of Capgemini, “The agility of such an infrastructure enables one to view the IT infrastructure in a true sense of resource pools of compute, storage and network and not as individual servers, storage, network etc.”

Ekta Aggarwal, Program Manager, ICT Practice, Frost & Sullivan, South Asia & Middle East, concurred, “Such agile solutions could aid an enterprise or a data center service provider in building its Cloud set-up.”

The foundations of Cloud computing and virtualization may be traced to the broader concept of infrastructural convergence. The compelling need to bring down CAPEX, do away with or minimize service outages and competitive pressures are leading to an increasing number of organizations demanding greater agility from their IT environments and the Cloud has become an obvious answer. This demand for Cloud-based computing is also creating demand for highly automated converged solutions to manage consolidated and increasingly dynamic IT operations in a unified way.

According to Daya Prakash, CIO, LG Electronics, “Converged infrastructure is no longer a choice for the CIO of any large enterprise. It is a logical expansion for anyone who has taken the journey towards server consolidation and Cloud computing.”

Unified Management (read converged infrastructure) has become a foundational requirement for Cloud computing, delivering the ability to manage the physical and virtual infrastructure and to provision and protect IT services. Therefore converged infrastructure can serve as an enabler for private and public Cloud computing services such as IaaS and PaaS.

According to Sridhar, most converged infrastructure offerings are based on an x86 compute platform, making them highly agile and interoperable with the Cloud environment. Virtualization too is now ready for prime time and a key ingredient for any converged infrastructure offering. Therefore, converged infrastructure is becoming one of the steps on the ladder that leads to the Cloud.

Yashpal Soni, CIO, Everest Industries Ltd., who is already using both public and private Cloud believed that the trick for successfully managing converged infrastructure was to keep your applications as light as possible.

Converged infrastructure has become the norm for many large enterprises that are setting up private Clouds,

Converging outside

While it’s the large enterprises that are spelling revenue for converged infrastructure vendors, some niche players in the SMB space, especially those dealing with big data, are also opting for these solutions. According to Aggarwal of Frost & Sullivan, “The SMB segment is an extremely niche adopter of such solutions. Buyers mostly belong to data intensive verticals and are governed by regulatory measures that mandate them to opt for highly secure, in-house solutions rather than popular managed hosting options.”

In large part, and mostly for SMBs, the usage of converged infrastructure is happening beyond the organization, mostly with their Cloud service provider. Explained Rajesh Awasthi, Director – Telco and Cloud Business, NetApp India, “With the advent of virtualization, convergence for SMBs is happening beyond the organizational boundaries. A lot of them are opting for a third party converged service in the Cloud.”

A lot of SMBs are inclining towards Cloud offerings in terms of co-location, IaaS or PaaS rather than owning the infrastructure. A good example of such a service provider is TCS iON. It is delivering SaaS to SMBs and has tied up with NetApp for its convergence requirements.

Rege of Cisco believed that SMBs had a lot to gain from such scenarios, since they could get the infrastructure without the hassle of management.

Convergence Challenges

A CIO’s biggest fear with respect to converged infrastructure is the fact that he is tied to a single vendor. Vendor lock-in, which a lot of CIOs are reluctant to enter into, is seen as a big hurdle in the way of converged infrastructure.

According to Aggarwal of Frost & Sullivan, “Lack of standardization and fear of non-interoperability are the chief restraints slowing down the adoption of modular data centers.”

Another challenge that enterprises face is the complexity of migrating heavy applications from their regular data centers to a containerized solution. This makes the modular data center concept unattractive when it comes to application consolidation. Management level integration too, often springs up as a challenge when you are adopting converged infrastructure.

That not all applications are ready to be moved into a converged environment is also emerging as a challenge for enterprises. Some mission critical apps need a dedicated environment and are not compatible with converged infrastructure.

Also, OEMs are racing to pre-validate solutions. However, this testing and validation is taking time and only few of the leading applications are qualified, which might or might not suit the application stack of all enterprises. Converged infrastructure offerings typically are in fixed configurations which may not be relevant at times.

The fact that converged infrastructure often calls for a complete rip and replace approach to derive the best value, is also posing a challenge for organizations and is being touted as something that is suitable only for new projects or in cases where a complete tech refresh cycle is underway. Opined Prakash, “A big consideration for anyone opting for converged infrastructure should be to keep in mind his existing commitments and evaluate it in view of his refresh cycle.”

Licensing challenges with respect to applications and operational databases are also common in converged infrastructure. However, the biggest challenge that enterprises, especially mid-sized ones face is to find and retain resources trained to manage converged infrastructure. “Training needs and the dearth of a skilled workforce are among the prominent challenges that organizations face when opting for converged infrastructure,” observed Mirza of EMC.

Converged Infrastructure from the SMB perspective
  • Smaller SMBs are looking more towards cloud offerings in terms of co-location, IaaS or PaaS rather than owning infrastructure
  • A rip and replace approach is not possible for SMBs. Hence, some mid-sized organizations are going application by application
  • CAPEX being a challenge for most SMBs, they are opting for the public Cloud and using convergence indirectly
  • Convergence for SMBs is happening mostly at the server and network level
  • The biggest challenge for SMBs is to hire, train and retain their staff
  • Other than that there are questions around security, license management and interoperability
  • The market is still developing, and before purchasing, a SMB needs to thoroughly understand their own requirements, the capabilities required, and integration needed to successfully roll out the converged infrastructure environment

The road ahead

Though it is the era of convergence in all aspects, be it multiplicity of devices, or networks or integrated apps, experts predict that converged infrastructure will take a little more time to take off in the Indian market. There is market maturity visible now and the Cloud is definitely aiding the adoption of this technology. However, there is still a dearth of talent in the industry and some compelling challenges like security and manageability that need to be addressed. As Awasthi said, “Evolution, not revolution will happen. Some apps will still require a dedicated platform.”

As of now, certain applications like the core banking ones need a dedicated environment to run and are not yet compatible for converged infrastructure, but this is expected to change. Also, self service will take prominence with the deployment of FCoE by large enterprises.”

According to Rege of Cisco, three things are expected to happen to converged infrastructure in the near future. Higher utilization, reduction of cost and ease in management complexity.

There is also consolidation, and coexistence that is likely to happen in the converged infrastructure space. As Aggarwal put it, “Going ahead, modular data centers won’t replace traditional brick and mortar data centers but Indian end users might go in for a hybrid solution. These would be particularly beneficial for large enterprises who have their internal data centers nearing full capacity and aren’t keen on expensive expansion.”

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