Infrastructure stack alliances bring benefits and drawbacks to enterprise data storage

IT infrastructure stacks created by storage and networking vendors try to eliminate enterprise data storage deployment and purchasing complexity, but can give users more to consider.

Enterprise data storage and IT vendors have been creating alliances over the last six months with the goal of creating stacks of components that eliminate deployment and purchasing complexity for customers. These infrastructure stacks bring potential benefits and pitfalls that must be taken into consideration for many enterprises making storage purchases.

The most prominent storage partnership is the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) alliance of Cisco Systems Inc., EMC Corp. and VMware Inc., and the Acadia joint venture between Cisco and EMC. Other recently launched IT alliances and stacks include a relationship between Dell Inc. and Brocade Communications Systems Inc. in which Dell sells Brocade's Fibre Channel (FC) and Ethernet networking equipment with its server and storage hardware; a similar deal between Brocade and Oracle Corp.; Oracle's acquisition of Sun Microsystems Inc.; and IBM's Smart Business bundles created from its own portfolio of internally developed and rebranded OEM products.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. followed up VCE with the announcement in January that it plans to spend $250 million with Microsoft Corp. over the next three years on product development. HP is one of VMware's largest server hardware partners, and Cisco's biggest rival following Cisco's introduction of the Unified Computing System (UCS) blade server. HP's infrastructure stacks will extend from the Microsoft application down through server, networking and storage hardware, more like Oracle's database machine and less like VCE's infrastructure-focused vBlock.

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Early this year, EMC rival NetApp Inc. teamed up with VMware and Cisco for its own stack offering, a reference architecture for secure multitenancy in VMware-based virtual server environments.

The vendors say these alliances will simplify the deployment of complex infrastructures for customers, especially at a time when operational expenditures are being carefully watched. "View this as if you're in a restaurant and there are two sides to the menu," said EMC CEO Joe Tucci at the launch of VCE. "One is pre-fixed, where we've chosen the meal and the wines ... all three companies will [also] be offering the other side of the menu, which is the a la carte."

Storage administrators have to weigh whether any Opex benefits from buying stacks will outweigh the potential lock-in and loss of flexibility they could bring.

"We go through a refresh every four years, and it's always an adventure," said John Lamb, assistant vice president of platform management at The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., which is currently deploying a vBlock in the hopes of getting a new infrastructure up and running more quickly than in the past. "We need to be able to make more transparent migrations, and we can't keep buying infrastructure the way we've been buying it."

But while he's willing to give it a try, Lamb said it's not an automatic slam-dunk. "It also requires changing the way we do internal chargebacks to recoup the costs — that's the challenge. We have to adjust ourselves to it culturally. It's going to be a multi-year thing."

The ideal compromise between flexibility and interoperability would be for there to be more open standards that allow for advanced functionality in the enterprise data storage world, said Jeff Boles, senior analyst and director, validation services at Hopkinton, Mass.-based Taneja Group. "But since the industry hasn't come to terms with that kind of interoperability, here's the solution: stack."

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