Software-Defined Infrastructure, As Cloudy Now As Cloud Was

A few years ago, people kept asking “what is this cloud thing we keep hearing about? What is it exactly, what technology? Is it real or is it a bunch of hokum that companies just added to their marketing to hop on the buzz?”

What exasperated me the most was that people kept looking for the cloud “technology,” expecting it to be a single piece of software or hardware when in fact it was a trend, a management model, a whole new way of operations.

The parallels between the cloud and software-defined infrastructure (SDI) are clear to someone who lived through the early cloud years. First, like cloud, SDI is not a single technology. It is a group of technologies, tools and processes that have been built up to help control the chaos of today’s data center. SDI is a management structure for the data center that enables choice, flexibility, cost-savings and nimbleness across all the data center infrastructure (servers, networks, storage), with control of these computing resources is entirely automated by software.

Already, in an increasingly cloud-centric world, data centers are a polyglot of technologies, which is a positive step.

In the quaint old days at the turn of the century, data centers relied almost entirely on physical servers. There were some early deployments of virtual servers, mostly in test environments (actually, the theory of virtual machines go all the way back to the 1960s), but for the vast majority, workloads were performed on physical machines.

Of course, that all changed in 2001 when VMware entered the server market with VMware GSX Server (hosted) and VMware ESX Server (hostless). Since then, innovation, complexity and choice have grown rapidly. We increasingly hear about these choices, and others are actually seeing these changes arriving in the data center. From the physical to the virtual, to public and private clouds, to open source and proprietary solutions—IT managers have nearly endless choices.

Is this really a good thing? Should the data center manager avail themselves of, for instance, Xen and KVM as alternatives to VMware? After all, with choice comes potentially great complexity. Are the choices worth the complexities and the effort needed to manage them?

Yes.

With the innovation, complexity and choice comes wonderful potential cost savings, abilities we’ve only dreamed of (like Big Data, for one) and speed of service. But—and here’s the catch—data center managers must make the right decisions on technology and have a way to manage away the complexity.

That’s where SDI comes in: computing resources that span physical, virtual and cloud platforms that act as one holistic unit, under a single management control system.

The fact is, IT is already moving into the world of SDI, where data centers are created and deployed with keystrokes and mouse clicks. To create order out of what could be chaos, SDI provides an abstraction layer that effectively provisions and automates these virtual and cloud-based components.

With any number of emerging platforms, technologies and tools, IT architects can pick and choose the right combination for the job at hand. There are lots of enabling technologies behind the SDI concept. Many of them are exceedingly good, but none of them are likely to dominate. Managing those choices is the key to effectively leveraging the heterogeneous data center.

In an SDI world, the actual payoff is the end-result itself: a data center that achieves the organization’s objective and the tools to manage the platforms and technologies that will be deployed. Centralized management and unified orchestration solutions must handle server provisioning, performance monitoring, and resource management across multiple converged systems technologies and across multiple data centers.

Choosing the right tool for the job now becomes one of cost, expertise, platform and task, not how difficult it will be to add a certain technology.

Don’t be afraid, for instance, to move workloads to open source. Xen and KVM provide great alternatives to VMWare for certain workloads and expertise. And, it keeps you from being bogged down—and potentially hamstrung—within a single-vendor environment.

As the tools become more heterogeneous, so, too, has the workforce tasked with implementing and maintaining those tools. Embrace this change, embrace this new knowledge. These talents bring flexibility and make your data center more nimble and cost efficient.

But make sure you have a good plan in place to orchestrate the changes—with this flexibility, choice and nimbleness can come chaos. SDI insists on a singular point of control and orchestration—One Ring to rule them all, as it were.

Don’t shy away from the innovation and choices out there; complexity does not need to equal chaos if the right unified management and orchestration tools are deployed. Complexity can be managed—in fact, many of your competitors are already doing just that.

 

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