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Converged architecture offerings pick up momentum with IT shops

Converged architecture options are gaining interest from IT shops hoping to simplify the deployment of storage, servers, and networking.

Pretested, preconfigured and pre-integrated IT stacks of storage, server and network components from major vendors appear to be picking up momentum with companies that hope to speed and simplify the deployment, operation and management of IT infrastructure.

Early market entrants such as the FlexPod reference architecture from NetApp Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc. and VCE Co. LLC's Vblock converged architecture have reported encouraging results and, in turn, played an influential role in the uptick of competitive offerings. VCE is a joint venture formed by Cisco and EMC Corp. with investments from VMware Inc. and Intel.

“As VCE’s grown and NetApp’s been doing well with FlexPod, we’ve seen everybody re-up their strategy,” said Stuart Miniman, principal research contributor for Wikibon, a community-focused research and analyst firm based in Marlborough, Mass.

Miniman estimated that converged architecture options currently represent only about 5% of the worldwide market for server, networking, storage and services, but he predicts they will factor in two-thirds of the dollars spent by 2017. Service providers will lead the wave of adoption, with large enterprises taking a bit longer, he added.

VCE chairman Michael Capellas said at the EMC World conference at Las Vegas in May that the company hit a run rate of just over $800 million in the fourth quarter, which translates to at least $200 million in revenue during the year-ending three-month stretch.

On EMC’s earnings call last month, CFO David Goulden said demand for Vblocks more than doubled in the first quarter of 2012 compared to the same period a year ago. He noted that some early adopters returned to purchase multiple Vblocks to run their production applications.

Goulden cited the example of a Fortune 50 customer that posted its initial Vblocks transaction in the third quarter of last year, a multi-million dollar deal in the fourth quarter and a $25 million order in the first quarter of this year.

DIY attitudes may fade

A joint NetApp-Cisco press release in April claimed that more than 850 customers use FlexPod, for a growth rate of more than 400% in less than a year. NetApp CEO Thomas Georgens had cited over 400 FlexPod customers during the company’s earnings call in November.

Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. claimed that its research shows that IT organizations have keen interest in the fully integrated or pre-qualified infrastructure model for their server virtualization and private cloud environments. Although close to half (46%) of 376 respondents took a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) approach at the time of the survey in January, only 28% said they prefer that method, noted Mark Bowker, a senior analyst at ESG.

More than a third (36%) told ESG their preferred infrastructure model would be a fully integrated converged architecture solution. Another 28% said they would rather have a reference architecture, where they purchase or follow a specific vendor’s blueprint for a pre-qualified and tested infrastructure that incorporates technology components from different vendors.

Bowker said IT shops are currently “very much oriented in this do-it-yourself mentality,” but he expects CIOs, IT directors and enterprise IT architects to ultimately see the advantages of integrated storage stacks. The advantages include the streamlining of support and troubleshooting and the automation of routine and mundane tasks. Bowker predicted the majority would buy integrated options five years from today.

“It will not happen overnight. Nothing ever does in IT,” he said. “But there are strong indications, especially from a preferred platform deployment option, that people are moving toward this integrated computing approach.”

All the major storage and server vendors have already rolled out one or more converged infrastructure and/or reference architecture offerings. The list includes Dell Inc.’s vStart, EMC’s VSPEX, Hewlett-Packard Co.’s VirtualSystem and CloudSystem Matrix, Hitachi Data Systems Corp.’s Unified Compute Platform, IBM’s PureSystems (which includes PureFlex System) and Oracle Corp.’s Exadata Database Machine and Exalogic Elastic Cloud.

Cloud, virtualization, and vendor lock-in

Leah Schoeb, a senior partner at Evaluator Group in Broomfield, Colo., said FlexPod and Vblock target a higher end of the market than Dell, HP and IBM. “They’re for large companies with deep pockets,” she said.

Certain packages focus on particular types of deployments, such as cloud or virtualization. Others supply infrastructure tailored to specific applications. For instance, Oracle designed Exadata to work with its databases, and FlexPod’s design guide documents use cases for applications such as Microsoft Corp.’s SQL Server and Exchange 2010 and ERP systems from Microsoft, Oracle and SAP AG.

Some converged infrastructure options restrict customers to products from a single or limited number of vendors, and others support third-party servers, storage and networking. For instance, Vblocks offers components only from EMC, Cisco and VMware. But, EMC’s VSPEX reference architecture supports products from additional vendors, including Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Citrix Systems Inc., Intel Corp. and Microsoft.

Marc Staimer, president of Dragon Slayer Consulting in Beaverton, Ore., said bundling servers, storage and networking, and tacking on services and software help vendors offset the low profit margins they receive when selling each component separately. Their customers pay more upfront but potentially see savings in time, staff resources and maintenance, he said.

“They provide a lot of love and care called professional services to make sure it works,” Staimer said, “because you pay through the nose for these things. You don’t get a price break.” 

Customers are limited to select configurations and products, some of which may not be best of breed, and making significant changes or switching to a different vendor is usually a costly process.

“There’s a lot of vendor lock-in here. You can’t go outside the box. It’s like a roach motel. Once you’re in, it’s hard to get out. It’s a very sticky play, which is why every [vendor’s] gotten into it,” Staimer said. “It’s the gold rush, and they all see it like this is the new mainframe.”

Roger Cox, a research vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., said it will be difficult to assess the revenue impact of many of the converged architecture offerings on the storage market because of the way the sales are credited.

For instance, EMC or NetApp might claim the storage sale, while Cisco takes the network and server revenue. Even with a single-vendor offering such as Dell’s vStart, the compute revenue goes to the server group, and the array revenue goes to the storage group.

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