Converged infrastructure: current state of play

Legacy infrastructure grows organically to meet business needs as and when they emerge. Each new deployment, upgrade or reassessment has the organisation’s best interests at heart at the time, but often the result is a siloed IT environment that struggles to integrate.

This requires a lot of management and maintenance, traditionally resulting in the large infrastructure teams that are evident in many organisations today. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing itself, it consumes a lot of resources that can be utilised elsewhere. And constantly upgrading legacy systems can be a laborious and expensive task.

Converged infrastructure has emerged as a natural solution. By consolidating the components of storage, computing and networking into one virtualised appliance, organisations can worry less about the complexity of their data centres and more about deploying new innovation.

According to a recent report from MarketsandMarkets, the global converged infrastructure market is expected to grow from $11.53 billion to $33.89 billion by 2019, with North America and Europe expected to be the biggest adopters.

>See also: Converge and conquer: The growing force of converged infrastructure

‘There is a recognition that converged infrastructure can help to simplify and speed up time to market and the related processes,’ says Milind Halapeth, global data centre practice head at Wipro. ‘As 2015 progresses, we expect this to become one of the mainstream architectures for on-premise and cloud IT deployments.

Kalyan Kumar, ‎SVP and chief technologist at HCL Technologies, adds: ‘These numbers indicate that there will be an increased adoption of CI as businesses discover that strategic advantages such as lower total cost of ownership and greater agility can be achieved.’

This adoption is likely to be driven by both SMEs and large enterprises, both of which can find benefits applied to their own environments.

For example, smaller enterprises can deploy the solution to reduces the number of skills and resources they need to maintain their IT infrastructure – meaning everything becomes simpler to run. 

Additionally, the substantial efficiency boosts in reducing capacity, bandwidth and IOP requirements, assets and provisioning times become major drivers.

Large enterprises, on the other hand, often have multiple branch offices with all the technology needs of corporate headquarters, but rarely a full complement of IT professionals to manage them. 

To make branch offices as effective as possible, workers need to have quick access to all the business information they need to perform their job. Traditionally this has been achieved by providing and maintaining technology locally, but costs can start to spiral out. 

‘Consolidating servers, storage and network infrastructure into a single appliance greatly simplifies the maintenance and delivery of critical resources, and maintains the application performance level, so user experience is not compromised,’ says Brent Lees, senior product marketing manager at Riverbed Technology. ‘The result is a pre-integrated stack optimised to run workloads at the branch.’

Stuart Gilks, solution architect at SimpliVity, adds: ‘Large enterprises might not be “sweeping the floor” of the data centre to refresh their infrastructure, but they are finding value with convergence in specific use cases, such as multi-site management for remote office infrastructure, VDI, data centre migration, and supporting disaster recovery requirements.’

All for one

The IT department has traditionally looked to a number of specialist vendors for the components of their infrastructures, allowing them to find the best of breed for their servers, network and storage.

While this means CIOs can ensure they are getting the best pieces of individual kit for their needs, it cam take a great deal of time and money to integrate all these various elements so that they work together. 

Even then, the resulting stacks often operate well below the potential promised by their individual components.

Converged systems, on the other hand, are built from the ground up using hardware and software solutions from a single vendor that are specifically designed to work together at the highest level. 

‘The result is a faster, more responsive system in which individual elements are optimised to communicate more quickly, which means operations are simplified and IT tasks are handled more quickly,’ says John Abel, senior director of engineered systems in EMEA at Oracle.

Integrating the systems enhances asset utilisation and reduces costs through greater efficiencies. The higher availability leads to reduced downtime and reduced incidents, improving end-user productivity. 

The combination of server, storage and networking also means there is less time spent on configuration, build and integration tasks, which helps with releasing products at a faster rate.

‘Various organisations claim that they have achieved significant cost reductions in storage, network and servers in the range of 40 to 50%,’ Kumar adds.

>See also: UK data centre conference will present trailblazing use cases of software-defined infrastructure

However, while converged infrastructure undoubtedly saves costs in the long term, the capital investment can be hefty. So how can CIOs both measure and prove to management that this investment will pay off?

It’s very tempting to think the next best thing in technology will act as the Holy Grail in solving the infrastructure’s most intractable issues. Whether it’s converged infrastructure or other technology purchases, new technology is always going to look attractive when compared to what went before. 

The reality is that without measurement, there is no real way of knowing what savings are being made. So organisations must examine to what extent converged infrastructure will allow the systems to perform better and enhance business value – something easier said than done.

‘Converged infrastructure is trying to be an open system mainframe but without the analytics to measure its impact on end-to-end performance or how well each element is performing at every tier of the stack,’ says Barry Cooks, VP of engineering at Virtual Instruments. ‘Without these metrics, knowing how to create optimum performance or calculating the return on investment is a tricky task.’

While it may be a factor of cost, organisations must ensure it fits in with their overall IT strategy – particularly their application, cloud and procurement strategies roadmaps.

This overarching strategy must be completely understood before being sucked in to a converged infrastructure solution that claims offer superior benefits.

‘I think a move to converged infrastructure is a bit like the old “HI-FI separates vs all-in-one hi-fi” arguments,’ says Anthony Lamoureux, strategy and development director at Velocity. ‘But some of the big strategic partnerships that are emerging do mean that the solutions, whilst maybe not best in breed and the most flexible in the future, do really simplify internal IT infrastructure.’

The loneliest number

But that simplified infrastructure may come at a price if the single vendor the user is tied to doesn’t deliver on its requirements.

Yes, a single vendor does give companies a single point of contact – and, indeed, accountability – for all their IT needs, but being beholder to one company can result in a vicious cycle of escalating costs and no escape without enduring significant expenditure.

It must be said, however, that a number of providers are now offering solutions that reduce ‘lock-in’ by supporting multiple vendors and open standards, Halapeth points out.

Another potential issue, meanwhile, is is that the ability to play one vendor against another to get a better price on all aspects of IT infrastructure – as is ever present in technology tenders – is reduced with converged infrastructure.

And for some, one vendor may be seen as a single point of failure and vulnerability. So in the long run, do CIOs run the risk of getting a worse deal?

The only way to truly find out is to look at the total cost of service lifecycle management. For one, the exhaustive testing that most converged infrastructure platforms will certify could save large enterprises many years of testing.

But it’s not right for every business. It is down to the CIO to really understand where any hidden costs of ownership are placed.

‘Don’t buy a converged infrastructure platform and then try and work out what business problem it solves,’ advises Lamoureux. ‘Start with your application and cloud strategy and then ask yourself whether converged infrastructure supports or hinders that vision.’

Indeed, cloud is a very important aspect of converged infrastructure, which can significantly boost an organisation’s journey to such a platform of computing.

There is a perception among many businesses that the transition to cloud computing can be made without first addressing their current IT complexity issues, but that’s simply not the case. 

While cloud computing has the potential to dramatically improve how a company operates, no cloud solution includes a mechanism to consolidate a business’s IT.

Organisations that don’t simplify their systems before migrating to the cloud will find themselves dealing with the same complexity troubles in unfamiliar territory.

‘Converted systems offer companies a means to bring their business solutions together in one place and tear away the operational barriers that separate them,’ says Abel. ‘As such, they offer organisations a simple and effective way to consolidate their IT before beginning their successful cloud migration.’

Hyper convergence

There will be accelerated innovation in the data centre space in the coming years as more and more organisations move towards the cloud. Data centre automation and management, particularly, will become mainstream and a top priority for CIOs.

>See also: The 3 myths of converged infrastructure

Converged infrastructure solutions are also moving towards self-optimisation and automated decision-making capabilities to efficiently utilise resources and maximise ROI. 

Investment in converged infrastructure solutions is accelerating, and will only continue to grow for the foreseeable future. The reality is that as organisations ask more of their CIOs, data centre automation and management at a reduced cost will become mainstream and a top priority. 

‘By combining servers, storage and networking hardware and management, businesses stand to make vast financial savings,’ says Kumar. ‘At the same time, IT teams will benefit from simplified management automation, freeing up their time for higher-level tasks. 

‘As businesses continue to realise the benefits that converged and hyper-converged infrastructure can bring, we’ll see much higher levels of investment as businesses look to enhance their competitive edge.’

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...