As feature gaps close between competitors in the server virtualization market, vendors look to pull parts of the infrastructure beyond server CPU and memory under their control, while the IT community remains in "wait and see" mode about how it will all come together.
VMware Inc. has begun to refer to this data center infrastructure "land-grab" as the software defined data center, a concept that took center stage at its VMworld conference in San Francisco in late August.
In the software defined data center, "all infrastructure is virtualized and delivered as a service, and automation is entirely controlled by software," according to VMware execs during keynote speeches at the show.
Vendors and the virtualized infrastructure land-grab
VMware's initial focus was on virtual networks, under its Virtual Extensible LAN (VXLAN) tunneling protocol and the Network Virtualization Platform (NVP) it acquired with Nicira Inc. in late July for $1.26 billion.
VXLAN tunnels Layer 2 traffic over Layer 3, the goal of which is to extend virtual networks beyond traditional subnet boundaries. Nicira's platform creates separate control and data planes in a data center network, with the goal of easier deployment of network services.
What previously took days or weeks of work from networking's "high priests" at a company should now take a click of a mouse when setting up virtual networks, said outgoing VMware CEO Paul Maritz, who spoke at a press conference at VMworld.
Meanwhile, VMware's server virtualization competitors share similar ideas about branching into networking and storage virtualization as they begin to catch up on the server side.
Microsoft began to ship Windows Server 2012 with version 3.0 of Hyper-V in September; once System Center 2012 Service Pack 1 is released to manufacturers, this version of Hyper-V will boast a number of advanced features. These include scalability upgrades for virtual machines (VMs), hosts and clusters; redesigned live migration; and support for extensible virtual switches.
Microsoft will also introduce its own protocol for network virtualization, dubbed Network Virtualization using Generic Routing Encapsulation (NVGRE), which, like VXLAN, can be used to overcome VLAN scalability limitations.
Elsewhere, Red Hat is focused on offering software defined storage -- scale-out network-attached storage based on commodity server hardware -- with its Red Hat Storage product, newly integrated into Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization (RHEV) 3.1, which is currently out in beta.
Other storage features include storage live migration, as well as the ability to hot plug and unplug disks and create live snapshots of VMs from a guest agent capable of quiescing the file system. New networking features due in RHEV 3.1 include the ability to designate different networks for management, storage and VM traffic; user interface support for Cisco's Unified Computing System; and the ability to hot plug and unplug network interface cards.
Finally, Citrix had remained so quiet on the XenServer front that speculation was beginning to crop up about the future of the product -- until mid-July, when the company held a webinar divulging its roadmap for XenServer's next two years.
While not focused on software defined networking or storage per se, further releases of XenServer will focus on optimizing integrations with network and storage infrastructure by breaking up the hypervisor's "domain zero" into its component parts in order to streamline services and improve I/O performance.
Sizing up 'software defined'
IT pros attending VMworld said they are taking a cautiously optimistic approach to VMware's software defined data center.
"It would be nice to holistically add networking and storage as you add servers today, but it's going to take a while before that vision comes to fruition," predicted Joachim Heppner, a senior manager of virtualization engineering for a large pharmaceutical company based in the Northeast.
Experts said they would like to see VMware articulate a more complete vision for the software defined data center.
The definition given by VMware in its keynotes "doesn't go far enough," said Edward Haletky, CEO of The Virtualization Practice, LLC. "That's vCloud with today's automation. It doesn't show me a vision of what [the software defined data center] could or should be."
Haletky sees the endgame for software defined data centers as the ability to translate a request from a business, such as, "I need to sell a million copies of a new product in the next six months," into the data center capacity, security and compliance features required to meet that demand, he said.
In other words, imagine being able to say, "'Siri, I need a data center,'" Haletky said.
This feature was first published in the October issue of Modern Infrastructure.
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