It's hard not to be impressed by all the unified computing platforms hitting the channel from Cisco, Dell and others. After all, these are mammoth feats of engineering incorporating the latest technological advances that, in one move, provide a full data center infrastructure that instantly becomes the envy of the neighborhood.
And yet, I can't help but think that these platforms could prove to be a tough sell, at least in the near term, and could find themselves swimming against some pretty tough currents in the IT industry.
First the news: Cisco Systems announced a series of major enhancements to its Data Center 3.0 portfolio this week aimed at ramping up the capabilities of its Unified Computing System in the drive to unite processing, networking, storage and virtualization into a single, cohesive system. The package includes new two- and four-socket servers featuring the Intel Xeon 5600 and 7500 processors, as well as a new pair of Nexus 10 GbE fabric switches, all governed by a new management stack that aims to more closely align data loads with available resources to help conserve energy.
A key component of the system is the FEXlink architecture, already available on the Nexus 2000 platform, that allows the new Nexus 2248 and 2232 fabric extenders to access legacy networks ranging from 100 Mb to 10 Gb Ethernet, as well as Fibre Channel and Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), InfiniBand over Ethernet, iSCSI and NAS. Not only does it provide upwards of 160 Gb connectivity per blade, but it cuts network management points more than 90 percent and knocks out close to 80 percent of existing cabling.
Cisco has a lot riding on this strategy, highlighted most strongly by the number of bridges it has burned to get to this point. Once a strong partner with HP, the two are now on parallel tracks for many of the same features and components. Witness HP's integration of video and voice collaboration tools from Polycom into its own UC platform. Polycom's chief competitor is Tandberg, which Cisco recently acquired for a cool $3.4 billion.
As I said, these are impressive systems and will no doubt find eager buyers looking to either expand existing infrastructure in a hurry or build it from scratch -- growing legions of new cloud service providers come to mind. The main issue I see with existing infrastructure is 1) integration with legacy systems, and 2) the real threat of vendor lock-in. Once you've installed a Cisco or HP unified architecture, there's no real turning back, so you better hope their customer service can meet your needs. Plus there is the fact that there are probably a few users out there that may already have HP infrastructure hooked up to, say, a Tandberg system or two. HP says it will continue to support Tandberg products, but for how long?
The other option is to build a unified platform based on open standards, which would give you an integrated architecture but still allow enough flexibility to develop customized systems and services through third-party providers. That's the approach Dell is taking as it looks to transition from a pure hardware provider to a full data center solutions partner. The company is focusing its energies on infrastructure, application and data management through a mix of in-house offerings and those of partners like Kace and Perot Systems.
Now, to be sure, open platforms have their own sets of issues, namely hefty integration costs and more complicated management stacks. But at least you gain a higher degree of flexibility for your trouble, with the added advantage of having a broader set of solutions to target specific needs.
So the question comes down to this: Have you had enough of the cobbled-together data center that you're willing to sacrifice some of your autonomy for a more cohesive environment? Or do you prefer to maintain a more free-wheeling environment that can be tweaked at a moment's notice?
The collective answer will determine the future direction of the IT industry.