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Think Converged Infrastructure Means Lock-in? Think Again.

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I’m starting to think converged infrastructure (or unified computing, if you prefer) is more than a trend. Since Cisco put the idea on the map with the launch of its Unified Computing System (UCS) in March 2009, nearly every major systems vendor  — notably HP, IBM and Oracle — has rolled out its own integrated stack of blade servers, networking, management software and, sometimes, storage. This is the era of cloud computing, after all; it’s easy to sell such prepackaged systems as turnkey clouds. Some forward-thinking CIOs already are buying in.

Conventional wisdom suggests buying into the convenience and performance of these systems also means buying into the dreaded vendor lock-in problem. As it turns out, however, that doesn’t have to be the case. Leading the charge of open converged infrastructure are, not surprisingly, Dell and longtime converged infrastructure proprietor Egenera. Both expanded their offerings in the past couple of weeks.

For its part, Dell is now selling its Virtual Integrated System architecture. Anchored by Dell’s Advanced Infrastructure Management software (a product of its recent Scalent acquisition), the product lets users provision servers, networking and storage from a single interface. In true Dell fashion, where those resources come from doesn’t really matter; the VIS architecture supports heterogeneous gear and hypervisor environments. Taking openness a step further, the cloud-like self-service portal (called VIS Self-Service Creator) is the result of an OEM deal with virtualization-management vendor DynamicOps. Although it’s part of the VIS offering, it’s not tied to it — a Dell prospect that loved this feature but hated everything else about VIS could get the same capabilities direct from DynamicOps.

Then there is Egenera, which has been selling its PAN Manager converged infrastructure software since 2001. The software combines physical-virtual resource management, network and I/O virtualization, disaster recovery and high availability. What makes Egenera open is its broad choice of blade hardware and virtualization platforms. Customers can choose Dell hardware (via the Dell PAN Manager or Dell Datacenter-in-a-Box solutions), Fujitsu PRIMERGY blades or Egenera’s own BladeFrame architecture (with more platform support on the way), and can keep their existing Ethernet technologies. PAN Manager supports VMware, Microsoft and Citrix hypervisors.

Whether Dell and Egenera can prevail against the one-stop-shop approaches of their much-larger competitors remains to be seen. Not only do companies like Cisco, HP and Oracle have mountains of marketing muscle and sales teams, but they also have great technology. Even Egenera vice president of marketing Ken Oestreich acknowledged, during a recent discussion, that Cisco’s VMware optimization and advanced network management with UCS makes it an elite choice for certain workloads. The same no doubt could be said about HP’s BladeMatrix or Oracle’s Exalogic. The problem, of course, is software and hardware components designed to work optimally, sometimes exclusively, with one another.

Dell has had its fair share of critics over the past few years, but betting against it in the data center is beginning to look like a risky idea. Acquisitions like Scalent (and attempted ones like 3PAR), as well as its booming Data Center Solutions business illustrate that the company is no joke when it comes to selling cutting-edge enterprise IT. Egenera, meanwhile, has a nine-year record of selling converged infrastructure to serious, risk-averse customers, including many financial services firms. And these services are less expensive than competitors’ offerings, especially when you factor in advanced management capabilites. Forrester comparisons show Dell VIS and Egenera PAN Datacenter-in-a-Box coming in at approximately 75 percent the cost of comparable VMware/Cisco/EMC Vblock, HP BladeMatrix and IBM CloudBurst implementations (roughly $150,000 compared with roughly $200,000).

Despite past concerns, I’m willing to acknowledge IT departments will indeed buy into the converged infrastructure vision. But I’m not yet ready to concede that complete vertical integration will win the day. It’s smart for systems vendors to gather all the pieces necessary to build prepackaged solutions; it doesn’t seem smart to bet the farm on them. As long as there are independent server, networking and virtualization vendors, there will be buyers for whom best-of-breed is the only way to go.

Related Research: VMware’s Cloudy Ambitions – Can It Repeat Hypervisor Success?


Question of the week

Will open or vertically integrated systems prevail among converged infrastructure systems?