Does big data really need custom hardware?

IBM (s ibm) and Cisco (s csco) are betting big on big data with new boxes designed specifically to store a lot of data, with the networking capabilities to move data around really quickly. As the glut of information inside businesses grow and the desire to analyze it becomes more pressing, big enterprise IT shops see an opportunity.

Where the generic server market has been commodified with low-end x86 servers companies like Teradata(s tdc) and EMC(s emc)  are doing their best to hold onto their hardware margins with specially designed systems. And it looks like IBM and Cisco have decided this is an opportunity not to be missed, and are taking it further. Cisco has released a unified computing system specifically designed to run SAP’s HANA database. Oracle (s orcl) is also heading down this path.

This is clearly aimed at enterprise customers who can afford the SAP licences as well as the Cisco gear, and the two companies worked with NetApp (s ntap) to pre-validate the box so customers can just plug it in without worrying about building their own Hadoop cluster or other technical feats that would require time and IT talent to get right.

IBM’s big box for big data.

IBM’s new PureData System, an addition to its older PureSystems converged hardware family, is an effort to cram security features for HIPPA and PCI compliance in at the chip level. Eweek coverage of the boxnotes that IBM is planning even more boxes:

IBM officials said the PureData System is the next step forward in the company’s overall strategy to deliver a family of systems with built-in expertise that leverages its decades of experience to reduce the cost and complexity associated with information technology. According to IBM, users can have the system up and running in 24 hours and handle more than 100 databases on a single system.

Both of these boxes are advertised as being specialized to tackle big data, but do big data workloads need such highly custom boxes? There are many who think that data processing will require something above and beyond a typical x86 set up, such as a box from SeaMicro or Calxeda machine with low-power cores that are networked to work in parallel to parse many bits of data in small chunks. Others are thinking farther ahead and envision new architectures that mimic the human brain.

Instead of these two boxes representing a new hardware for big data these really represent that capitulation by the major hardware vendors to a services model. Technically these boxes may have different chips when compared with commodity servers, but what these guys are actually selling is the plug and play aspect. Sure a customer can buy cheaper boxes and download a Hadoop or other open source software (or pay a licensing fee and have someone like Cloudera manage it for them) but they want something that works with little or no effort.

So these boxes aren’t about the whiz-bang tech inside, they’re an admission that services wrapped in a box are the main opportunity ahead for larger vendors. The question is, how long will that be enough? Especially as the cloud, either public or private makes its continued advance.

Database image courtesy of Shutterstock / z0w.