How the software-defined data center changes the virtualization game

By removing the traditional constraints of physical hardware, the software-defined data center offers flexibility.

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When you think about a data center, you likely imagine a large building with diesel generators. Inside, you probably picture racks full of servers and networking equipment, raised floors, cable trays and well-positioned ventilation. After all the hours that I have spent in data centers, thoughts like this actually make me feel cold.

So, what truly defines the physical data center? Is it really defined by what we physically see when we step inside? Thousands of data centers may use the same network switches, but any two are rarely the same.

Purpose-built hardware provides a way to execute code-and-relay data. What makes it unique is software or the device configuration. Every data center has a core router, but the configuration of that device is what makes the router unique. The physical device is simply a conduit for executing the function, as defined by the software. Although the physical aspects of a data center have not changed much, the amount of end-user systems that directly touch the components has decreased dramatically.

Virtualization changed the way we defined the data center.

In a virtual data center, you abstract the function from the physical, taking the physical device's software and running it on a virtual device. As this happens, the defining points of your environment are no longer physical devices. Network or storage devices in your virtual environment can actually be virtual devices themselves. By shedding physical constraints, software is more dynamic and flexible, and that changes everything. Boundaries within the data center have become less about form and more about function.

In this scenario, tenants become less concerned with physical assets. They don't deal with the physical firewall, routers, switches or power connections. In a way, physical components have become a sub-infrastructure. Many modern data center tenants work with a soft infrastructure, which is also known as the software-defined data center.

A software-defined data center once again forces administrators to redefine the data center. A software-defined data center is different from a physical data center in that it can dynamically adjust to a wide array of conditions; it can be moved around the world or distributed across multiple physical locations.

The days of moving physical data centers with thousands of devices, a process which could take over a year, are fading. By decoupling the function from the physical device, it is like the transition from physical postal mail to electronic messaging. The content of a message is no longer tied to a physical asset; it can move around the world in seconds.

The software-defined data center is leveraging those same efficiencies, and the IT world has been handed a powerful new tool. If you fail to recognize this shift in the data center, you may not only miss out on new efficiencies, but you may find your future IT decisions are being based on factors that are no longer relevant.

This was first published in November 2012

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