Appliances Making a Run at the Data Center

Arthur Cole

It's been well-documented that advanced technologies like virtualization and cloud computing, not to mention the dismal economic conditions in general, are depressing demand for servers, storage systems and other hardware categories.

That's apparently why many vendors are turning to the last piece of equipment that seems to show some resiliency in these times: appliances. Particularly among the small-business segment, appliances are seen as the most logical means to gain large enterprise features and functionality in both a low-cost and easily managed format.

IBM has seen the writing on the wall and for the past two years has been busy testing a new line of application appliances oversees in preparation for a North American launch. The company is apparently satisfied enough with the results to bring the new Smart Cube to the United States this week. The units are available as either a Power-i system sporting 4.2 GHz Power6 processors with up to 16 GB of memory, eight disk drives and four single GbE ports, or an x64-Linux device with either a dual- or quad-core Xeon, 8 GB of memory and four 500 GB drives. The idea is to offer a complete data center infrastructure in a box, allowing users to either establish or extend IT operations with as little fuss as possible.

Citrix is starting to ramp up its appliance offerings as well, debuting three new NetScaler MPX devicesat Interop this month. Designed for Web application acceleration and security, the new MPX 5500, 7500 and 9500 models offer from 500 Mbps to 3 Gpbs of Layer 7 throughput and are designed to complement the NetScaler VPX system to create a combined physical/virtual web environment. Each unit runs on Intel multicores, allowing them to perform multiple operations like load balancing and firewall/gateway services simultaneously.

Meanwhile, HP is looking to application-specific appliances as a way to bolster its hold in data center infrastructures. The company used the SAP Sapphire conference, for example, to preview the XML Accelerator for SAP's ERP and Netweaver Process Integration platforms. The device is designed to offload much of the CPU activity that tends to spike with large data conversions and multiple XML variations, improving latency and overall performance. Initial devices will be based on the ProLiant DL580 which supports quad-socket Xeons and the Tarari processor board from LSI. Look for support for Oracle, Microsoft and other XML-based systems soon.

It's not only the big names that are pushing appliances, though. California's Intalio is looking beyond mere Web applications and is targeting a full cloud appliance designed to quickly establish internal cloud architectures behind the enterprise firewall. The company is basing its box on the HP BladeSystem server, outfitted with solid-state drives and InfiniBand interconnects. It also uses VMware virtualization to provide multitenancy in smaller organizations, while larger firms using multiple physical servers can tap into the system's virtual symmetric multiprocessing capability to scale the system up. It also offers an application creation and customization platform similar to AppXchange.

Despite the fact that IT always considered itself a new breed of technology compared to earlier heavy industries, there are a lot of parallels to those "old-style" businesses. Just as cars and even railroads went from bigger and heavier models to lighter and faster ones, so too is IT moving from big iron systems to lighter architectures that stress performance and efficiency over raw computing power.

It's a transition that was bound to happen, and it will probably produce a radically new kind of data center over the next few decades. But it's the kind of development that must be embraced, because to fight it means locking yourself in the past.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
May 26, 2009 1:05 PM Owen Garrett Owen Garrett  says:

Software appliances that can be deployed on general-purpose x86 hardware are gaining ground; our experience is that packaged hardware appliances fall out of favor when astute customers realise that they impose multiple levels of lock-in (lock-in to the hardware provider, lock-in to the physical location of the appliance, lock-in to the 3-yearly cycle of forklift upgrades... ouch!).

I don't think that the most agile datacenters of the future will contain 'full-stack' hardware appliances; hardware will be decoupled from management which will be decoupled from services which will be decoupled from applications. 

Organizations will seek to outsource the commodity parts of the stack that do not add specific value to their business operations; hardware is a commodity, as is basic load balancing and firewalling.  These are infrastructure components that can be obtained cost-effectively from cloud-type providers. 

However, the section of the application stack from management, advanced load balancing and firewalling up to the custom applications the business owns will be managed on an in-house basis.


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