Pre-integrated stacks of servers, storage and networking the latest thing in the world of IT infrastructure

By Andrew Collins*
Tuesday, 31 August, 2010

Pre-integrated stacks of servers, storage and networking are the latest thing in the world of IT infrastructure. But how long will they stick around, and what effect will they have on the security vendors? Andrew Collins investigates.

In the 1980s, organisations purchased computers that shipped with all the required infrastructure layers on board, including compute power, storage, connectivity and so on. A good example of this ethos was the DEC VAX. In the 90s and 2000s, customers began to purchase each layer of infrastructure separately, usually from multiple vendors, and would integrate these elements in house.

Now we're moving back towards an infrastructure model reminiscent of the integrated model of the 80s; infrastructure vendors have recently begun selling pre-integrated stacks of servers, storage and networking, under the moniker ‘unified infrastructure’.

This begs the question: is this a one-way trip or will the industry eventually swing back to a dis-integrated model, like that of the 90s and 2000s?

“I think there'll always be a swinging between layered (that is, dis-integrated) and integrated,” says Kevin McIsaac, an analyst at IBRS. “The question is: where?”

He believes that the hardware side of things will soon settle: “I think we'll come back to vertically integrated systems for the basic hardware: servers, storage and networks, based around open standards,” he says.

With the basics taken care of, McIsaac thinks the industry will begin to find something else to target for the question of integration/disintegration. In particular, he points towards middleware and applications.

“Maybe applications - monolithic applications get blown open into more component pieces. We've talked about it for a long time [but] we haven't really done it. We might get there, we might not. Oracle with Fusion Apps is really driving towards that. SOA was kind of what that was supposed to be but never really achieved,” he says.

“So I think you'll see the swing between consolidated and monolithic vs component layers built on open standards happen in different areas,” he says.

Paul Robson, VP and GM of HP Networking, Asia Pacific and Japan - a unified infrastructure vendor - is hesitant to speculate on the far future.

“It’s hard to pick the long-term future. In the near terms - the next 5 years - I think that the value proposition that you get out of building solutions that work together is obvious,” he says.

Bob Hayward, CTIO at system integrator CSC Australia, which offers unified infrastructure solutions based on the VCE Alliance’s Vblock, has similar thoughts.

Hayward says that customers who want to purchase separate infrastructure layers and integrate them in house would end up looking at VCE alliance members VMware, Cisco and EMC, anyway. When you then add the value of pre-integration, unified infrastructure looks pretty compelling for the foreseeable future.

“I do see this as a trend,” he says, noting the integration efforts of a bunch of vendors, including Oracle and Sun, as well as IBM, HP, HDS and Microsoft.

“You’re seeing this trend - certainly at the moment - accelerate. Going forward? Good question. I do see it perhaps eventually changing a little bit,” he says.

“The interfaces between all these things will become more standardised, with APIs and so forth, so you can maybe talk about swapping in and swapping out different components from different vendors,” he says.

“But we’re not there yet.”

What of the security vendors?

When IT teams deploy infrastructure, they typically harden each layer as they integrate it into existing environments, with help from security vendors. But if unified infrastructure takes hold, that initial hardening will likely be handled by the equipment vendors. So where will the security vendors fit in?

“[Security vendors] are going to be pulled in a range of directions,” says James Turner, an analyst at IBRS.

“One of those directions is going to be helping secure the big depots of where computing happens, and that’s obviously going to be cloud computing,” he says.

Also, “There’s going to be an enormously important role for analytics, to be able to look across big data and then pull meaningful intelligence from that. So your traditional security and event management vendors are going to be increasingly moving into more complex analytics,” Turner says.

“And then on the other side of things, it’s a case of helping pour concrete over the surface of where these devices, consumers and these system stacks are touching the wild,” he says.

Robert Pregnell, Channel Regional Product Manager, Security Business Unit at Symantec, says, “Like any other consolidation of technologies over the years, opportunities exist for security vendors for partnerships with many of the hardware platform providers.”

“I would suggest that we see opportunities there for the likes of Symantec and other vendors for partnerships,” he says.

But he warns that customers must always keep an eye on security, even if security vendors do end up working alongside infrastructure vendors to harden pre-integrated stacks.

“Even if that were to happen, or if the vendors themselves baked in security, it doesn’t mean the customer can just completely take their eyes off that ball and assume that it’s done for them,” he says.

“There may be less effort required on behalf of the user to secure, or do anything with these platforms - get them up and running, secure them, whatever you need to do with them,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean it’s going to eliminate all of the effort.”

There are still many factors in play when it comes to the future of IT infrastructure, and at this point it’s hard to predict anything definitively. As Turner says, “Any of the stuff that we’re seeing now is really the first trickling of the snowflake - the avalanche is probably still a good 5 to 10 years away.”

*Andrew Collins is a freelance writer.

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