Can the Enterprise Thrive Without Infrastructure?

Arthur Cole
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The Top Challenges for Network Engineers in 2015

Data center infrastructure is supposed to be the rock upon which higher order applications and services are built. So what are we to think when someone comes along and says we can do all kinds of wonderful things by severing the application’s ties to this foundation?

In a way, what is happening to data architectures mirrors what we can see in the data center. The floor is concrete, but the racks are made of metal. The servers themselves are not welded to the rack but can slide in and out for easy replacement. At each delineation, the goal is to produce maximum flexibility while still rooting the system in the strength of its supporting infrastructure.

The latest iterations of virtual infrastructure are taking this idea to an entirely new level, however, because they purport to remove infrastructure concerns entirely from the business model. This can be seen in solutions like Nutanix’s Xtreme Computing Platform (XCP), which aims for full application independence from what the company is now calling “invisible infrastructure.” With the app now enjoying full mobility, native virtualization and even consumer-level search capabilities, it subsumes virtually all of the provisioning, orchestration and other functions it needs to support business processes at scale. In this way, organizations can finally rid themselves of costly infrastructure concerns and focus on what matters to them: making money through app-level innovation.

HP is on a similar track, although it still sees value in robust infrastructure, Its vision is of a more flexible architecture than exists today on which fluid pools of compute, storage and networking can be more easily provisioned and decommissioned. This “composable” infrastructure will be more responsive to application demands and thus will make it easier for organizations to tailor their data needs to specific actions. Naturally, this incorporates a range of HP products, such as the OneView automation stack, and the company has even opened key APIs to foster a Dev/Ops community that has already drawn companies like Chef Software, Docker, VMware and Puppet Labs.

For VMware’s part, the purpose of free-floating application environments is business mobility—the ability to leverage user- and application-centric architectures to foster broad sharing and collaboration across a range of fixed and mobile infrastructure. To get there, the enterprise will have to rethink such time-honored IT constructs as the client-server architecture and will even have to implement entirely new business processes that more fully leverage the data environment at hand. But those who can master this new computing paradigm will thrive, while those who fail to adapt will perish.

This is a time-honored marketing ploy, of course: Adopt my technology or be at the mercy of those who do. But in this case, says Intel Enterprise CTO Ed Goldman, it may very well be true. Think of it this way: Companies that are still provisioning physical infrastructure manually are at a distinct disadvantage to those that have adopted virtualization, so in the near future, companies that are slow to get on board with software-defined infrastructure (SDI) will find themselves equally out-flanked by more nimble competitors. Not only will this be evident in the ability to find and engage new customers, but in getting products to market, analyzing incoming data, adapting to changing business conditions, and keeping up with the rapidly evolving digital economy.

No one here is claiming that infrastructure, even physical infrastructure, is not important. Indeed, as density increases and power consumption drops, advanced infrastructure will continue to see steady investment and renewal over the years. But it is fair to say that the enterprise’s responsibility for the physical layer will diminish and that success or failure of any given business model will rest on virtual and application-layer prowess rather than how much compute or storage can be brought to the table.

When the sands under your feet are constantly shifting, it helps to be able to move quickly to more stable ground.

Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.

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