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The End of the Appliance As We Know It, And I Feel Fine

I am writing this little op-ed piece in lieu of a full-blown obituary. Why? the market speaketh, and it declared hardware-based appliances dead. Like dinosaur-dead, dead. Sure, some of the specialists may survive, just like the Crocodile and the Shark have managed to keep evolving and avoid the big-rock-hit-earth-make-dino-dead era.

From the Metaphoric Journal-Register:

Appliance, Mr. Hardware B. passed away on June 19th, 2007. Mr. Appliance was renowned for the uncanny abilities to bith create controversy and save money. During his career he was the muscle behind most modern network equipment, many network security services, the complete setup of numerous small and home office businesses, and a host of other specialized IT functions. His ability to reduce cost and complexity is duly noted and many have expressed great appreciation for his efforts. While many did not agree with his one-device-one-task approach, his fame and popularity continued to rise even in conflict. He is survived by one child, a Ms. Virtual Appliance. Said Ms. Appliance in her eulogy “My father was of great service, and it is with great pride that I take up his mission. I promise to provide the public with the same services, the same muscle, and the same fiscal attention. Furthermore, I plan to take his vaunted career one step further and sever my ties to proprietary equipment. I know Dad would have been proud of this decision, which will give greater economic and administrative freedom to you, my beloved supporters.”

Why am I, at the risk of sounding like the world’s biggest (well, you can insert your own word here), being so haughty as to declare the hardware appliance dead? Because hardware is mattering less and less in the commodity server market, and it’s bleeding over into the commodity appliance market. Hardware appliances were great – they did one task (or one category of tasks) very well, had minimal overhead, and were often cheaper than a full-blown server-and-software solution. Who uses their own server-based routers? Not many people. And yet Cisco has gone quite far in undocking much of IOS from the hardware, a move that (among other things) is good for virtualization. If you’re looking for a security appliance, you could buy a Symantec hardware appliance, or you can download any number of similar appliances from VMTN. Inboxer makes an email archival hardware appliance. They also make a virtual appliance. Need a NAS or iSCSI SAN? These even come in virtual appliance flavors like the Openfiler appliance – and they’re great for taking those old hanging-chad JBOD storage arrays off their legacy hosts, linking them up on a single host, and converting to centralized storage. Zeus‘ network traffic monitoring hardware appliances are now available in virtual appliances. This list of links goes on and on and on, and it shows an interesting trend; that hardware appliances are giving way to virtual appliances across most of the market.

And like the big-rock-hits-earth scenario, it’s happening fast. It’s not flashy like a meteor strike, but its just as quick – a few short years and hardware appliances will take a backseat behind the virtual appliance mammals. It’s cheaper for vendors to work on the software and not have to integrate it onto hardware that can change from revision to revision, and it’s as easy for customers to deploy and manage virtual appliances as it was to do the same with their dinosaur cousins. There’s even an extra layer of manageability with virtual appliances, since you can manage the hardware. A huge boon – business continuity. There’s more built-in DR/BC in virtual appliances that you just don’t get in hardware. Wanna be ready for DR? Ok, get all of those hardware appliances duplicated. Or take snapshots of your virtual appliances. Which is easier? Which is less expensive? Which is more rapidly verifiable?

What about the performance hit? In all but the most demanding cases, such as a core switch or the load balancer for the storage arrays of a Fortune 500’s ERP systems, the 10% degradation of performance caused by virtualization is of minimal importance. These then, are the crocs and sharks of the new era – highly specialized, long-term survivors that will continue to proliferate when the rest of market enters the long sleep of a the virtual asteroid impact.

Mitchell Ashley’s blog on the same subject takes a similar look here, and even uses some of the same analogies I use (I was quite grumpy when I found that mine wasn’t a very original thought, but such is what it is).

A few more links for the weary web-traveler:

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