Now You're Talking: How Converged Infrastructure Has Changed The Channel Conversation

The phrase "having one throat to choke" is a grim way to describe the ideal of having a single contact when it comes to purchasing IT and, even more importantly, getting support when problems occur.

Increasingly, getting that single-contact holy grail of IT simplification means turning toward the adoption of converged infrastructure.

Converged infrastructure, also known as "integrated systems" by research firm Gartner or "integrated infrastructure" by research firm IDC, refers to the tying together of server, storage, networking, virtualization and sometimes other resources into an integrated solution to give businesses a way to manage those resources as a whole rather than through separate management systems.

[Related: Hyper-Converged Infrastructure: So Many New Solutions Coming]

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A more recent subset of converged infrastructure, known as hyper-converged infrastructure, is similar except that the compute, storage, networking and other resources are packaged as a single software package that runs on commodity x86-based servers.

The modern concept of converged infrastructure first started being defined in mid-2009 with the founding of a coalition between EMC, VMware and Cisco Systems that eventually became the company VCE. However, the industry has in the past couple of years quickly grown as customers and solution providers started understanding the benefit of letting vendors design and test various combinations of server, storage, networking and virtualization resources before offering them as either prebuilt solutions or as reference architectures that allowed others to deploy them according to plan.

Gartner in June estimated the market for integrated systems, which includes single-vendor and multivendor converged infrastructures and hyper-converged infrastructures, will grow more than 50 percent in 2014 over 2013 to reach $6 billion.

Accelerating the growth of the converged infrastructure market compared to the IT business as a whole are improved performance, perceived lower operating expenditures, greater IT optimization, increased automation and simplified sourcing, Gartner wrote in the report.


For the channel, talking to customers about converged infrastructure requires a shift in mentality away from the idea of finding the best possible components toward understanding that good can be good enough, said Brett Anderson, director of cloud and data center solutions at Logicalis, a New York-based solution provider.

"For years, partners like us reinforced the message that we are the geeks, the ’MacGyvers,’ who understand the products better than everyone," he said. "We can not only build the kitchen, we choose the lumber. How many times have you heard someone say with pride, 'If I get hit by a bus, my company would die?' "

That conversation changes with converged infrastructure, Anderson said. "With converged infrastructure, we're saying, 'The hardware is good enough,' " he said. "Don't focus on the hardware. Focus on the speed to use and performance. Don't worry your pretty little head over the details."

NEXT: Converged Infrastructure vs. Best Of Breed


Solution providers see many areas in which converged infrastructures are a better choice for IT than traditional best-of-breed solutions.

Because converged infrastructures provide pretested, prevalidated solutions that are often jointly developed by multiple vendors, they can help reduce customer concerns about how well the different components work together, said Milton Lin, master cloud architect at Force 3, a Crofton, Md.-based solution provider.

"When someone implements a FlexPod, both NetApp and Cisco know what goes into the solution," Lin said. "This makes it easier to deploy and support than separate components from the vendors."

Converged infrastructure also makes it easier to deploy consistent solutions than using best-of-breed components, Lin said. "We work with a lot of government agencies, and staff turnovers are often high there," he said. "Providing consistent solutions over time is much better for them."

Converged infrastructure simplifies the validation of IT solutions, which helps customers in industries heavily regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, Food and Drug Administration or similar organizations, and helps businesses meet compliance or contractual agreements with other companies, said Mike Davis, vice president of technology at Broadleaf Services, a Billerica, Mass.-based solution provider.

"For example, PCI security certification can crush many IT departments," he said. "It's very complex to validate. You might need 800 to 1,000 pages of hardware and software documentation to apply. Validated reference architectures can get you 90 [percent] to 95 percent of the way there. And some reference architectures are already prevalidated for the particular application."

Management via a single interface also is important, as is the ability to expand the solutions with such capabilities as a security layer or a cloud gateway, Davis said. "You can train someone on one interface to manage server, storage and networking resources, and not as separate silos," he said.

Converged infrastructure not only provides single-pane-of-glass support for all the components, it also helps with support escalation, said Vince Lamb, vice president of professional services at Technology Integration Group (TIG), a San Diego-based solution provider.

"There's no more being bounced between vendors for support," Lamb said. "It's that single throat to choke."

Converged infrastructure also makes a lot of sense in environments where there is an IT core at the headquarters tied into multiple remote offices, said Dusty Smith, vice president for systems architecture at Advanced Systems Group, a Denver-based solution provider.

However, converged infrastructures are not for everyone, solution providers said.

A big problem with converged infrastructure solutions is the fact that server, networking, storage and other gear typically have separate refresh cycles, which can make it difficult to justify a complete rearchitecture of a customer's data center.

Logicalis’ Anderson said that makes converged infrastructure a better solution for new installations rather than updating existing infrastructures. "Because the people you talk to are technical people, you can easily underestimate the power of the depreciation schedule," he said.

Force3’s Lin said government and enterprise customers often do not have the budget to replace everything at once. "They often need to acquire the components separately," he said.

NEXT: Converged vs. Hyper-Converged Infrastructure

The choice of converged infrastructure vs. best-of-breed components depends in part on a customer's existing infrastructure, TIG’s Lamb said. For instance, customers with existing infrastructures are more likely to deal in components, while those starting from scratch or who have multiple components coming off warranty at the same time should consider converged infrastructure.

"If you don't want to be locked into one vendor, do not do converged," he said. "If you don't want to have a single 'black box,' do not do converged. If you want to play with things, do not do converged."

The internal setup of IT organizations also makes a difference, Lamb said. "With converged infrastructures, there will be some internal conflict between the storage guys, the server guys, and the networking guys about who owns it," he said.

The best-of-breed approach to IT will continue for a long time, in part because it is the way people have gotten used to doing it, Anderson said. Eventually, though, such customers will have to reconsider their options. "They will look at how much time is spent keeping their 'Rube Goldberg' contraptions running," he said. "They could be spending more time on their line-of-business operations and other more important things."


Design considerations often dictate whether a converged infrastructure or a hyper-converged infrastructure is required.

One big differentiator between the two stems from how they manage storage, Lin said.

While converged infrastructures have a SAN as a key component, one key aim of hyper-converged infrastructures is to eliminate SANs by distributing the storage capacity over multiple nodes, he said.

"For smaller companies, if they don't want to manage a SAN, hyper-converged infrastructure may be better," he said. "They tie storage to the CPU. But if you want storage capacity to grow but don't need more CPUs, it's not easy with hyper-converged infrastructures. Converged infrastructures allow storage to grow independently."

Another big differentiator is the lack of control over individual components in hyper-converged infrastructures, Lin said.

"Once a customer decides on hyper-converged infrastructure, they are locked in with that choice," he said. "With converged infrastructure, if they're not satisfied and want to switch out the storage vendor, they can continue to use their existing servers. They can switch from EMC's VSPEX to NetApp's FlexPod or vice versa. But if they start out with hyper-converged infrastructure, they're stuck."


While hyper-converged infrastructure solutions come as prebuilt nodes, converged infrastructure offers a choice between factory prebuilt solutions complete and predesigned reference architectures that are assembled on-site from separately purchased components.

For prebuilt solutions such as VCE's Vblocks, the fact that the vendor strictly controls the configurations, updates and patches appeals to many customers, Lin said.

Other customers prefer solutions built on-site because of the hands-on experience they get, he said. "We like to do part of the build on-site so customer personnel get hands-on management experience," he said. "That user experience is important."

Solution providers also can assemble and test components based on reference architectures and install applications off-site before deploying to the customer's data center, or have them assembled by their distributors before they are shipped.

NEXT: To The Cloud And Beyond


Broadleaf Services' Davis said he expects to see more application-specific development of converged infrastructure offerings. "Some people are out there already selling hyper-converged infrastructures as VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure] solutions," he said. "And I expect a wave of business analytics and master data management solutions to be developed on converged infrastructures."

Converged infrastructure is a step in the evolution toward software-defined data center infrastructures, in which all the functions of a data center can be deployed in software running on industry-standard servers, Lin said.

"The more the data center gets virtualized, the closer it gets to being software-defined," he said. "Converged infrastructure is a step in the evolution. From there, hyper-converged infrastructure goes further by collapsing the software stack."

Converged infrastructure will not slow down the adoption of cloud computing by businesses, Lin said. "Converged infrastructure is still more aimed at customers looking to build private clouds, often within our data center," he said. "But converged infrastructure is not meant as a replacement for the cloud."

As new technologies such as software-defined networking and software-defined security mature, customers will gradually adopt the software-defined data center concept of companies like EMC and VMware, resulting in the commoditization of data center hardware, Anderson said.

"That will bring with it the idea of, don't focus on the underlying hardware," he said. "Just tweak a knob to change something. As customers move toward software-defined data centers, where redundancy and high availability are all handled by a software approach, customers will stop worrying about hardware nodes."

Most SMBs eventually will move their operations to the cloud, but midmarket and enterprise companies will continue to have hybrid environments connecting converged infrastructure with clouds, Anderson said. "Such customers will need converged infrastructure to get the right kind of automation and orchestration, and then can build their clouds on it."

One problem that could hold up the future of hyper-converged infrastructures is how well clouds will play with on-premise solutions, Smith said. Bringing on-premise and cloud solutions today requires the use of APIs, especially the REST (representational state transfer) API for sending data services calls between different machines and the Web, but different companies sometimes want to grab those APIs for themselves, he said.

"Amazon has forced REST and other protocols down our throats," he said. "Hyper-converged infrastructure may not work well in the future unless it is compatible with Amazon."

This article originally appeared as an exclusive on the CRN Tech News App for iOS and Windows 8.