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Data Center Decision: Converged Infrastructure Vs. Best-Of-Breed

Converged infrastructure offers convenient configuration and deployment of IT hardware and software, along with the convenience of having a single throat to choke, but for many customers the flexibility of best-of-breed solutions is preferable.

The move to adopt converged infrastructure as a platform on which to build the modern data center is gaining traction as more vendors enter the market and existing vendors improve their product offerings.

Established vendors with converged infrastructure offerings such as HP, Cisco, and Oracle are facing new competition both from major IT companies such as Dell and Huawei Symantec and from upstarts like Xsigo, all of whom are looking to entice customers with a one-stop-shopping approach to data center infrastructures.

At the same time, however, potential customers are also looking at multi-vendor, best-of-breed solutions that not only give them a choice of technologies but which also help them avoid getting locked into a single vendor's technology.

Customers will be facing this choice for the foreseeable future as both technolgy trends continue to develop.

Converged infrastructure is a way to integrate multiple IT technologies, such as servers, storage, networking equipment, virtualization, and/or software applications into a larger solution.

Unlike best-of-breed solutions in which a solution provider and its customers integrate different components from two or more vendors based on specific customer requirements, converged infrastructures offer relatively little leeway in terms of vendor or product choice.

Instead, converged infrastructure solutions are typically either pre-integrated by a vendor or distributor or are assembled in the field by a distributor or solution provider according to the vendor's "blueprints."

Converged infrastructures offer a number of advantages over best-of-breed solutions.

The primary advantage is that the solutions are either integrated by a single vendor or built according to a vendor's pre-designed templates, making them much easier to deploy than a solution which needs to be assembled from multiple vendors' products in the field.

Converged infrastructure solutions also provide customers with "one throat to choke," or a single entity with which to deal for service, repairs, updates, and patches. Indeed, many converged infrastructure solutions included automated updates and patches to reduce the amount of work administrators need to keep their systems up-to-date.

However, an equally strong case can be made for best-of-breed solutions.

While integrating of multi-vendor solutions in the field is much more complex an operation than shipping a fully-configured solution into a data center, they allow customers to pick and choose their required technologies from vendors of their own choice. This is especially true where a customer already has major investments in their preferred server, storage, or networking vendors.

More important for many customers is the fact that a best-of-breed solution helps prevent vendor lock-in.

Converged infrastructures allow vendors to lock customers in and competitors out of the data center. This becomes a major issue as customers and their data centers are increasingly connected to the cloud because the vendor who provided the converged infrastructure has the inside track on building the cloud infrastructure.

Solution providers see advantages with both the converged infrastructure and best-of-breed approaches.

John Convery, executive vice president of vendor relations and marketing at Denali Advanced Integration, a Redmond, Wash.-based solution provider and HP partner, said his company is a strong proponent of HP's converged infrastructure solution because of how it drives costs out of the data center while increasing IT efficiency.

Denali holds about 30 customer events a year in which it leads with data center converged infrastructure, Convery said. "That's our elevator pitch," he said.

Denali is currently working with partners like McKinstry, the Seattle-based developer of technology for managing facilities, to build an HP Cloud Center of Excellence for helping customers develop cloud solutions based on HP's converged infrastructure.

"Efficiency is in our DNA," Convery said. "From the get-go, we talk about costs with customers. A lot of data centers are facing a down economy and budget cutbacks. So we not only talk efficiency with them, but put our money where our mouth is by heavily investing in our infrastructure."

Next: Converged Infrastructurer vs. Best-of-Breed Debate Continues


Not every customer is a converged infrastructure customer, but not for lack of trying, Convery said.

"We're professional enough as sales people, and feel the need to be consultative and offer the best value," Convery said. "When dealing with converged infrastructures, it increases the sales cycle. But if a customer calls and wants 1,000 blade servers, we take the order. We can then talk to them about virtualization, thin clients, virtual desktops, and more."

Bob Olwig, vice president of business strategy at World Wide Technology, a St. Louis-based solution provider, said his company is having tremendous success with the Cisco-EMC-VMware VBlock, the Cisco-NetApp-VMware FlexPod, and the HP Cloudsystem Matrix converged infrastructure offerings.

"Customers are generally very interested in converged infrastructure stacks or PODs (HP Performance Optimized Data Centers)," Olwig said. "They appreciate our architectural, independent and multi-vendor approach that ultimately leads to a tailored infrastructure that best meets their business needs and budget."

World Wide offers a wide range of advisory services that include hands-on training, solution demonstrations, discovery workshops, technology assessments, and proof of concepts, many of which are delivered out of its Advanced Technology Center (ATC), Olwig said. All three of its converged infrastructure offerings are running in its ATC, he said.

"We are seeing faster adoption of these converged infrastructures within our federal segment and mid-size enterprises, but we expect a faster ramp by Fortune 1,000 clients at the end of 2011 heading into 2012," he said.

Another solution provider who works with both NetApp and EMC as well as Cisco and VMware said his company prefers to go with best-of-breed architectures.

That solution provider, who prefered to remain anonymous, said there is a market for converged infrastructure solutions, but that configuration flexibility is more important. "We don't believe in vertically-integrated stacks," the solution provider said.

The two original proponents of converged infrastructure combining elements of storage, server, and networking technology are Cisco and Hewlett-Packard.

Cisco's entry to this market is the Cisco UCS, or Unified Computing System, which combines networking, blade servers, storage, core switching, routing, security, and voice over IP (VoIP) into a single architecture.

Cisco does not offer its own storage technology. Instead, it works with EMC and VMware to develop the VBlock offering promoted by VCE, which is owned by the three partners and which sells almost exclusively through the channel. Cisco also works with NetApp and VMware to develop the FlexPod, which is sold by NetApp exclusively through its channel partners. While the VBlock has its own SKU and is shipped by VCE as a fully-configured solution to the customer site, the components of the FlexPod are ordered from the three vendors and assembled in the field by the solution provider.

HP's converged infrastructure includes its ProLiant blade servers, a variety of storage technology, and the networking technology it got with its acquisition of 3Com.

IBM is also girding for the converged infrastructure with its acquisition late last year of networking vendor Blade Network Technologies. Like HP, it can supply the storage, server, and networking legs with its own technology.

Oracle is another competitor in this space with its unique strategy of combining its powerful software stack with the server and storage technology it got with its acquisition of Sun Microsystems. However, Oracle does not have its own networking offering.

The last couple months have also seen the entry of several strong IT vendors into the converged infrastructure market.

Next: Vendors Make Their Converged Infrastructure Moves


Dell in July said it planned to acquire Force10, a developer of high-performance data center networking gear. That acquisition, once it closes, would give Dell its own networking intellectual property which could be closely integrated with its strong server technology and its storage product lines, including its recent Compellent acquisition.

Dell's planned Force10 acquisition complements and extends Dell's storage and server portfolio, especially as customers look at how to embrace cloud computing, said Dario Zamarian, vice president and general manager for Dell's networking business, when the acquisition was unveiled.

There is no doubt that Force10 and its networking technology will be a key part of a solution play, Zamarian said. While some customers will continue looking for an open approach to data center architectures, others will find a converged solution with a single management framework more suited to their needs. "So there will be integration," he said.

Intel in July unveiled an agreement to acquire Fulcrum Microsystems, a fabless networking chip company which specializes in designing high-bandwidth Ethernet switch chips for data centers. Intel said that the Fulcrum technology will be part of a converged server, storage, and networking strategy. Intel is unique in the converged infrastructure market in that it partners, not competes, with the other vendors.

Huawei Symantec, a joint venture of China-based telecom giant Huawei and U.S. based storage and security software vendor Symantec, in July introduced a full line of enterprise networking equipment to go with its server and storage offerings, and left open the possibility of integrating those technologies.

Smaller startup vendors are also seeing the value of converged infrastructures. San Jose, Calif.-based Xsigo Systems, for instance, offers software which connects virtual machines to any networking and storage technology in a data center via its proprietary I/O Director hardware and software technology.

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