Virtualization hardware and data center design: Did the debate shift?

When it comes to virtualization hardware, converged infrastructure like NetApp FlexPod and VCE Vblock is taking the place of yesterday’s vertically scaled systems.

IT pros still argue over horizontal vs. vertical scaling, but the evolution of virtualization hardware appears to have subtly shifted the data center design debate to horizontal scaling vs. converged infrastructure.

Virtualization is winning the battle over installing an operating system on bare metal, and I think most people will concede that point. Not everyone has adopted virtualization, but time will soften their defenses and allow for improved virtualization  and options -- until all are assimilated.

But what will happen to server hardware? Do people still care about the server? Even hypervisors need a physical home, and there are still plenty of discussions on how to best architect that foundation.

Data center design arguments before virtualization
The evolution of virtualization hardware is not all that different from what we saw when Web-hosting environments matured. During the Internet explosion of the 1990s, Web-based technologies and hardware adapted to meet the new challenges of the Internet age. Initially, websites were hosted on whatever hardware you could get, leading to server rooms full of PC-grade, commodity hardware.

When the dot-bomb hit, the Web pool thinned to applications and services that provided real value. More attention was paid to delivering a quality service, and improved tools ushered in more stringent infrastructure requirements. And the phrase “horizontal vs. vertical scaling” dominated the architecture and data center design discussions.

How virtualization hardware changes data center design decisions
Over the last several years, new technologies, such as virtualization, have revived the scaling arguments. Unlike the early days of the Internet, scaling vertically no longer requires a massive server that sucks down power and radiates heat all day. A few, well-configured 2U servers can provide an amazing amount of power.

While horizontal scaling may still be about a higher number of less expensive servers, I think the vertical scaling argument is morphing into one of converged infrastructure and blade computing. Conceptually similar to vertical scaling, a converged infrastructure uses common hardware components to provide connectivity to both networking and storage. Whereas vertical scaling stacks multiple applications or services on a single server, converged networking stacks multiple connectivity protocols on a single adapter or switch port.

Cisco Systems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. were among the first to recognize the need for converged network and server environments in their blade platforms.  This architecture not only consolidates servers but also your networking infrastructure and storage area network resources -- all of which can greatly reduce your data center’s footprint. With virtual servers funneling their access to networking and storage resources through the hypervisor, there is an even greater value in selecting a server platform that can converge these technologies to lower management, cabling and space requirements.

What virtualization hardware and data center design is right for you?
Similar to how Web-based application infrastructures matured, I think we will see small to medium-sized businesses adopt a horizontal scaling of servers where inefficiencies, such as higher port counts and additional points of management are more easily balanced out by a lower price tag. For these organizations, the lower cost solution often wins.

But I fully expect the enterprise will adopt converged infrastructures to take advantage of the efficiency of scale in blade platforms that also incorporate networking and storage components.  Look for these organizations to turn more toward products like VCE’s Vblock and NetApp Inc.’s FlexPod, which bundle compute, networking and storage elements into a single package that can be easily configured and deployed like building blocks.

Once viewed as rigid and too restrictive by some, the Vblock and FlexPod architectures are continuing to mature and become more robust in their options, which only increases their value. While the technical arguments are much the same, it appears that yesterday’s horizontal vs. vertical discussion has becomes today’s horizontal vs. converged battle.

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