Business of Technology

Converged infrastructure: Is less really more?

Some federal IT managers are coping with the steep budget cuts of the past few years by going beyond simply trimming expenses from the top down and instead fundamentally rethinking how they design their data center infrastructures from the inside out.

Case in point: U.S. Customs and Border Protection developed an IT road map that significantly downplays technology diversity. “The idea of everyone having their own servers, infrastructures and unique configurations — that is just unsustainable from a budget perspective,” said Wolf Tombe, CBP’s chief technology officer.

The agency has turned to an infrastructure approach that uses quick-to-deploy hardware appliances based on open industry standards. He acknowledged that there’s a trade-off to this approach, in that “you sacrifice the ability to tailor your infrastructure on a per-case basis,” but also said it might be the best strategy for the times. “I would argue the cost savings will radically outweigh those sacrifices,” he said.

Why it matters

CBP’s strategy falls within a larger trend known as converged infrastructure, which uses standard technologies in pretested combinations to reduce the time and effort IT staffers devote to implementing interrelated server, storage, database and virtualization products.

“If done right, converged infrastructures can lead to quicker deployment of applications, less performance tuning, and savings on costs for operations and administration,” said George Weiss, a vice president and analyst at Gartner.

However, agencies must carefully weigh the trade-offs. In addition to less design flexibility, Weiss said, there are potentially higher upfront costs and a greater risk of vendor lock-in compared to traditional data center resources.

CBP isn’t the only agency looking closely at the converged infrastructure option. With more than 250 data centers nationwide, the Department of Veterans Affairs is investigating whether adopting standardized, “off-the-shelf” technologies — an inherent characteristic of this approach — can help the agency meet its performance demands while lowering its overall IT costs, said Christopher Shorter, executive director of enterprise operations at VA.

For the past three months, Shorter’s team has been running a pilot project to gather cost and performance data about one brand of database appliances. “If the industry can raise the maturity level of these types of solutions, they could become a true force multiplier,” he said. For example, with the appliances VA is evaluating, performance monitoring and error reporting can be done via a central interface, which reduces the need to devote staff resources to those tasks, he said.

CBP and VA are part of a larger industry trend, according to the Wikibon Project, an online community that promotes the open sharing of advisory knowledge. In a blog post in August, David Vellante, a co-founder and principal contributor to Wikibon, predicted that by 2017, converged solutions could provide the underpinnings of almost two-thirds of the infrastructure that supports enterprise applications.

Such predictions help explain why a number of industry heavyweights are jumping on board. The list includes Cisco Systems, EMC, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel, NetApp, Oracle and VMware.

The fundamentals

Converged infrastructures offer IT managers two main options: preconfigured appliances with computing, networking, storage and virtualization resources that support databases and applications, or a reference architecture that provides a blueprint for IT departments to combine data center components that have been shown to work together efficiently.

Each option has advantages. On the plus side, preconfigured appliances give agencies an integrated and pretested solution that can often be procured using a single SKU number. “This eliminates the need to perform regression testing among different components in the architecture because it’s bundled together as a single package,” said Chris Burns, technical director of the Enterprise Services Group at General Dynamics IT.

Implementation speed can be dramatic. For example, one federal client of Mythics Consulting, a systems integrator that specializes in government projects, had a converged database appliance fully operational in less than two months, a sharp contrast to the 12-month process required to install a stand-alone database platform and migrate data to it, said David Miller, Mythics’ vice president of engineered systems.

The solution-in-a-box approach could offer some ongoing benefits as well. For example, the appliance vendor often handles support even if multiple companies contribute to the configuration. Similarly, updates to software, firmware and security patches come as a package so IT managers can centrally install everything en masse. “If you look at legacy data centers where you have 1,500 machines and each one is a little different, it’s a huge manpower burden to patch them,” Tombe said.

The other route to converged infrastructure relies on a reference architecture. It provides an overall blueprint to help an agency build its own infrastructure and leaves the actual integration and some of the component choices to the IT shop. It could create opportunities for cost savings while offering more design flexibility than the preconfigured appliance approach, industry consultants say. It also has less risk of vendor lock-in than appliance-based solutions.

For example, an agency’s in-house technical employees could choose components from a short list of options that are compatible with existing infrastructure components. In addition, reference architectures might include products from vendors the agency is already working with. “You may get some economies of scale based on your buying power with the different vendors that you have,” Burns said.

Reference architectures could also be budget-friendly in other ways. If an agency doesn’t have funds in the current fiscal year’s budget to modernize a group of servers and networks simultaneously, the reference architecture could provide a strategy for upgrading components over time in the most efficient sequence.

Finally, as with preconfigured appliances, some reference architecture collaborators provide a single point of contact for resolving configuration problems and performance glitches.

The hurdles

Despite the potential of the converged infrastructure approach, IT experts say agencies might still encounter problems. One challenge is accurately comparing the costs against more traditional approaches.

“We’re seeing cost savings for electricity — we’re not paying as much in kilowatt hours or for HVAC compared to running multiple systems,” VA’s Shorter said. But the agency is still determining whether converged systems cut man-hours for management and maintenance. Shorter said he’s keeping a close watch on those resources. “I’m very cautious about this because when virtualization first came on the scene, everyone said there would be a huge reduction in manpower requirements, and we have not seen that.”

Gartner’s Weiss advised agencies to look beyond an appliance’s price tag and ask for a cost breakdown for each component so they can compare the total to the appliance price. That will help organizations determine the premium being paid for upfront integration and decide whether the cost is justified, he said.

Agencies should factor in some additional considerations to determine the investment’s value. “For example, you may be able to shave a week off the acquisition cycle and shrink the installation time,” said Greg Schulz, a senior analyst at consulting firm StorageIO. “And over the next three years, maybe you can shave X days off normal maintenance and support times.”

However, agencies must balance the benefits of preconfigured appliances or reference architectures with the possibility of vendor lock-in when it’s time for upgrades or wholesale replacements. Tombe said he addresses that risk by only choosing solutions that adhere to open standards.

Nevertheless, complications can arise if a security-sensitive agency — the Defense Department, for example — mandates that a particular security patch be installed immediately. “I can’t afford to wait for the vendor to come out with it as part of the integrated patch update,” Burns said. “Then the question is: Will you be supported by the vendor or are you now responsible for making sure it’s fully operational across the system?”

Some agencies are looking beyond the current budget crunch to see how a converged infrastructure could fit into their IT strategies. “Our long-term plan is to move entirely to appliances,” Tombe said, because of their ability to be virtualized and combined into pools of resources. “If you look at what they are and how you can put them together, you are fairly well on the way to having a cloud.”

Next steps: 6 key considerations

When it’s time to move to a converged infrastructure, agency IT managers should keep the following considerations in mind.

1. Determine how much preintegration has actually been done in a prospective appliance solution. In other words, “is it really a single SKU item or just piece parts that I now have to assemble?” said Yogesh Khanna, vice president and chief technology officer at systems integrator CSC.

2. Pay close attention to an appliance’s software to see if it includes tools for automation and orchestration. If not, you will have to buy and integrate third-party packages, Khanna said.

3. For a reference architecture, study how it has evolved and the designers’ plans for modernizing it. “It should be a living, breathing document that’s regularly updated,” said Greg Schulz, a senior analyst at StorageIO.

4. Look beyond the IT department when making decisions about appliances and reference architectures. George Weiss, a vice president and analyst at Gartner, advises agencies to include line-of-business representatives, such as those from the finance and human resources departments, in the decision-making process.

5. Don’t become enthralled with a solution from a single vendor or consortium. Weiss said organizations should compare offerings from multiple sources to see various approaches to converged infrastructures and weigh their relative strengths and limitations.

6. Prepare for change management. “Converged architectures can be a culture shock for the operations and maintenance people and in IT shops that are used to building their infrastructure from the ground up,” said Wolf Tombe, chief technology officer at Customs and Border Protection.

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