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FlexPod architecture: Top five things you should know

FlexPods may seem like an easy way to implement storage and a hypervisor at once, but Brien Posey explains there are several things to consider first.

Brien PoseyBrien Posey

One of the lessons that I learned very early in my IT career is that, generally speaking, vendors like to blame one another when problems arise. For example, if you were to call an application vendor's support line for help, they are likely to tell you that the problem is related to your operating system. Of course, the operating system vendor is just as likely to blame the application publisher or even the underlying hardware.

Vendors blaming one another for problems can be a huge issue for network administrators who need to ensure that systems work reliably. It was this very problem that led NetApp to introduce the FlexPod architecture.

FlexPod architecture consists of NetApp storage, Cisco connectivity and either a Microsoft or VMware hypervisor that have all been certified to work with one another. That means FlexPod should go a long way toward helping to reduce the vendor blame game, while also improving system reliability. Even so, there are a few important things to know before investing in a FlexPod architecture.

1. FlexPod: Assembly required

Because FlexPods consist of hardware from NetApp and Cisco, it is tempting to think of FlexPods as a hardware bundle. In reality, FlexPods are not a ready-to-use, off-the-shelf solution. FlexPods are designed to be modular and to offer the highest possible degree of flexibility, but without sacrificing reliability in the process.

As would be the case with just about any modular product, the assembly is up to the customer. However, FlexPod components are only certified to work together when configured in specific ways. This means that the only way to achieve the maximum benefit from a FlexPod architecture is to assemble it in accordance with NetApp's guidelines.

2. Use case is crucial

This one sounds obvious. After all, you probably don't stock your data center with generic server hardware. Instead, you match the hardware to the task that it will be expected to perform. This same concept extends to FlexPod, but NetApp actually takes things a step further.

I explained that FlexPods must be assembled and configured according to NetApp's specifications. NetApp actually provides a series of documents on their website that detail FlexPod configurations for a variety of use case scenarios, ranging from entry-level options for small environments to secure multi-tenancy capabilities for service-oriented infrastructures, as well as Oracle Linux deployments for customer relationship management workloads.

3. Consider the hypervisor

Since NetApp is a storage vendor, it should come as no surprise that this documentation tends to focus heavily on storage configuration. Although it is undeniably important to establish a storage configuration that has been certified to work, it is equally important not to forget about how the hypervisor interacts with the storage infrastructure.

This isn't to say that NetApp completely neglects the hypervisor. After all, the hypervisor is a part of the FlexPod stack. It is worth noting, however, that VMware offers their own best practice guidelines that augment those NetApp provides.

4. Management tools for FlexPod

As with any other IT infrastructure component, organizations that invest in a FlexPod architecture will require management and monitoring capabilities. FlexPod takes advantage of the APIs that third-party management and monitoring vendors make available, so there is a possibility that you might be able to manage FlexPod using your existing management solution.

On the flip side, there are vendors that offer management solutions that are specifically designed for FlexPod. Cloupia for instance offers a validated end-to-end FlexPod management and automation solution. Computer Associates offers competing software called CA Nimsoft Monitor for FlexPod.

5. Flexpod vs. Vblock

FlexPod is not the only solution that certifies multiple vendors' infrastructure components to work with one another. EMC offers a competing solution known as Vblock. Both FlexPod and Vblock are certified for use with various VMware and Cisco products, but Vblock uses EMC storage products, while FlexPod is based on NetApp storage.

The subject of which infrastructure stack is better has been hotly debated. Although neither platform is clearly superior to the other, there are important differences between the two competing standards. Most notably, some view NetApp's solution as an open-ended set of guidelines, standards and requirements. The solution offers tremendous flexibility, but it is up to the administrator to make sure that the core requirements are adhered to. EMC's solution, on the other hand, is more of a turnkey "product" than a collection of standards.

FlexPod architectures can help an organization achieve a higher degree of reliability by using components that are certified to work with one another. As with any other IT solution, however, it is important to be aware of what FlexPod is capable of, as well as its limitations.

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