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Unified Data Center Stacks: Risk of Vendor Lock-in?

Cisco's (NASDAQ: CSCO) Unified Computing System (UCS) and entry into the server market a year ago sparked a new IT arms race and has forced data storage, server and networking vendors alike to come up with a strategy for data center convergence.

The promise of a converged or unified computing platform is clear — centralized management and provisioning of virtual resources on-the-fly while reducing physical infrastructure and overall cost.

The potential drawbacks, however, cannot be overlooked. According to industry experts, customers face the threat of vendor lock-in, while storage vendors have a decision to make: Pick a side.

Taneja Group founder and consulting analyst Arun Taneja concedes that there is upside to unified computing, but he is leery of the downside.

"We know that certain advantages accrue when you have that level of control over the vertical stack from the application to the spindle, but the negatives far outweigh the positives," he said.

IT buyers are accustomed to buying best-of-breed products and are confident that they have some leverage at the negotiating table. Taneja is fearful that negotiating power may evaporate if unified computing platforms take hold.

"It took us 25 years to move to a best-of-breed scenario in the data center," he said. "Now there are established standards for the interfaces between the application and the system. The moment you go the other way, a vendor would have enough power to say 'I'm going to do something proprietary between these components or subsystems to get a 25 percent increase in performance.' But what did we just do? Users get locked-in in that scenario."

Data storage vendors represent an important piece of this puzzle, as they may determine which way the pendulum swings.

"If the shift to unified computing does transpire, storage vendors are going to have to pick sides, and by picking sides they essentially become subservient to that larger vendor," Taneja said. "What the big vendors are saying to storage vendors is 'We are going to create the platform and you better decide which side you're going to fall on."

Each of the vendors making a push into unified computing has a piece, or pieces, of the stack and is plugging portfolio gaps with technology from partners.

Cisco UCS

Cisco's UCS combines compute, network, storage access and virtualization resources in a single system based on a line of blade and rack-mount servers developed by Cisco.

Cisco's servers are based on Intel's Nehalem processors and feature "extended memory technology" to support applications with large data sets and virtual machines (VMs). The network connectivity for UCS is provided by the Nexus family of switches and based on low-latency, lossless, 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE), enabling a unified fabric that consolidates LAN and SAN traffic on a single wire, reducing the number of network adapters, switches and cables and decreasing power and cooling requirements.

The system can access storage via Fibre Channel, Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) or iSCSI. Additionally, users can pre-assign storage access policies for system connectivity to storage resources.

Cisco has recruited EMC (NYSE: EMC), NetApp (NASDAQ: NTAP) and VMware (NYSE: VMW), among others, to provide the storage and virtual machine technologies that round out the UCS platform's capabilities.

HP Converged Infrastructure Architecture

HP (NYSE: HPQ) retaliated with its Converged Infrastructure Architecture, a set of associated services and partner offerings aimed at creating a virtualized, on-demand data center.

The HP Converged Infrastructure Architecture integrates and virtualizes compute, storage, networking and management resources based on several HP technologies, most notably BladeSystem Matrix, FlexFabric and Virtual Resource Pools.

Using HP Virtual Resource Pool technology, modular standards-based systems can be provisioned on-demand to support enterprise, cloud and high-performance computing applications.

The underlying storage for Virtual Resource Pools is supplied by HP's StorageWorks systems, including the StorageWorks X9000 Network Storage System family, a series of scale-out systems based on technology from the acquisition of Ibrix.

Hitachi Unified Compute Platform

The most recent entrant into the fray, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), is planning to ship the Hitachi Unified Compute Platform in early 2011. Like the others, the HDS platform offers the combined management of compute, networking, storage and applications. The management layer will be made possible through an OEM deal with Microsoft, under which HDS will distribute Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2, Microsoft System Center suite and Microsoft SQL Server 2008 products.

The Hitachi platform combines HDS software, storage and server products with Microsoft's System Center infrastructure software, Hyper-V virtualization technology and SQL Server database, as well as networking products, to serve up an automated, virtualized, "cloud-ready" platform, according to Miki Sandorfi, HDS chief strategist for file and content services.

The hardware includes the Hitachi Universal Storage Platform V (USP V), Hitachi blade servers, and Fibre Channel and Ethernet networking gear (from partners).

Dell's Next-Generation Data Center

Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) has a different take on the next generation data center. Dubbed Virtual Integrated Solution, or VIS for short, Dell's offerings include storage hardware, software and data management services based on open systems technology.

The solution can be composed of new or existing server, storage and networking technologies tied together with an offering called Dell Advanced Infrastructure Manager (AIM). The AIM solution dynamically allocates hardware and software resources based on workload demands. For example, VIS may include Dell servers, Juniper switching and Dell-EMC storage all tied together with AIM.

Dell is bringing to bear solution stacks made up of hardware, software and services aimed at managing internal IT and cloud computing environments. For Dell, it's about tying legacy systems together with the latest server, storage and systems management technologies with an open systems approach.

"It is easier for the OEM to build a fully integrated system, but the industry doesn't slow down. If we made a fully integrated, Dell-only solution it would pretty quickly no longer be best-of-breed," said Paul Prince, CTO of Dell's Enterprise Product Group.

Oracle's Got It All

Oracle (NASDAQ: ORCL) appears to be the one vendor with the entire IT stack in its arsenal, with applications, middleware, virtual machine technology, servers, storage, database and operating system software.

Oracle's offering — the Exadata Database Machine — is a pre-packaged hardware and software system complete with operating system software, virtual machine (VM) technology and servers and storage from Sun.

Oracle president Charles Phillips has made it clear that the company is out to change the way IT is engineered, integrated and delivered to customers.

"This industry has a long history of building systems in a very labor-intensive, manual way," he said. "They are very unpredictable, very unreliable and expensive to maintain and implement. Why don't we do all that up front at the factory?"

Phillips believes it's time to get back to the ways of IBM in the 1960s by building complete compute environments. "We are going to recreate that reliable environment from years ago, but we are going to do it with an open systems platform," he said.

If Phillips' view on the industry is correct, customers might be ready to embrace the one-stop-shop all over again. Tight purse strings always play a role in the purchasing process, and the prospect of discounts through consolidation is alluring, especially in times like these.

According to Andrew Reichman, a senior analyst with Forrester Research, "There is definitely a desire to aggregate purchases, especially among enterprise companies. Consolidating more purchases with vendors may [yield] better discount percentages and support. Infrastructure is not black or white. There are shades of lock-in no matter what you do. The key is to be aware of it and keep an exit strategy in mind."

Kevin Komiega is managing editor of InfoStor.com and a contributor to Enterprise Storage Forum.

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