Appliances: IT Where and When You Need It

Arthur Cole

Much of IT's attention may be drawn to building up cloud resources and putting new services to good use, but there are still urgent issues surrounding plain old data center infrastructure that only traditional hardware and software can address.

The overriding challenge, however, is to make sure infrastructure doesn't end up costing you a fortune to the point that maintaining your own data environment becomes more trouble than it's worth. For that reason, more and more enterprise functions are finding their way onto appliances, where they can be deployed quickly and in a targeted fashion.

The most common appliances are centered around storage, although even these are starting to drill down into highly specialized applications. Pivot3, for example, has released a new enterprise version of its vSTAC Watch device that provides load-balancing, failover and other management functions for large surveillance systems. The unit provides scale-out storage for large volumes of video data and can be easily integrated into vSphere and vCenter environments, as well as open third-party video management software. It also features scale-out flash storage acceleration that enhances video capture by cutting disk latency, allowing camera counts to increase by half.

Appliances are also fighting back against the stereotype that they are "IT-light." Devices like IceWEB's new 7000 model sport a pair of quad-core processors and a 40 GB cache tied to six GbE ports with options for 10 or 40 GbE, 4-16 Gb Fibre Channel and 56 Gb InfiniBand. Oh, and capacity scales up to 1.8 petabytes. With that, you get the IceSTORM operating system, which uses the Oracle's Zettabyte File System (ZFS) for such functions as thin provisioning, in-line compression and deduplication and virtual machine integration.

If physical appliances are so useful, wouldn't virtual ones be even more so? They can be, under the right circumstances. It seems that the rule of thumb is that if you wish to build up physical infrastructure to support virtual and cloud applications, go with a physical appliance. If your goal is to optimize the virtual or cloud infrastructure, then roll out a virtual appliance.

This is what Meru Networks has in mind with its new series of VMware-based Virtual Mobility Controllers, which enable wireless LAN services for virtual private clouds or subscription-based hosted applications. The systems are targeted at the growing need to integrate wireless devices into enterprise data environments, which is widely seen as one of the chief advantages of cloud-based infrastructure.

Some of the most novel approaches, however, feature a mix of virtual and physical appliances that enable efficient exchange across internal and external infrastructure to both broaden scalability and tap into more diverse resource options. TwinStrata Inc. recently added free 1 TB virtual appliances to its CloudArray storage gateway that provide immediate access to the Google Cloud Storage platform. The system is aimed at "data bursting" into the cloud, in which enterprises immediately shift workloads off of existing infrastructure should volumes suddenly spike. For a fee, the virtual appliances can be expanded to 50 PB.

Appliances aren't meant to replace traditional data center infrastructure. Instead, they provide a lower-cost alternative to large-scale hardware deployments. As business units across the enterprise look to the cloud to meet specific needs, internal infrastructure needs to find a way to accommodate them at a reasonable price point or else it will fall into irrelevance. Appliances will usually provide a quick and easy way to tap additional resources without breaking the bank.

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