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Infrastructure convergence - The two sides of the coin

What are you gonna do today, Napoleon?

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Comment Let’s be fair – IT isn’t the only industry fraught with jargon, but it can certainly hold its head up high among the leaders in the field of gobbledygook.

The minefield of acronyms we all have to suffer is worsened by the astonishingly bad practice of overloading individual, sometimes quite innocuous words and combining them with new ones, which in turn are subjected to unnecessary and distracting debate. And so we are subjected to hearing such things as, “That’s not a business process,” or “Adaptive virtualisation through best of breed solutions.” Members of the Plain English Campaign must be constantly shaking their heads in desperation.

Realistically, however, it’s nobody’s fault. I put it down to the fact that we’re working in such a new sphere of human development that existing language isn’t sufficient to support the dialogues we need to do our jobs. It doesn’t help either that the industry is stuffed full of geeks (I’m one of them) and armchair philosophers (and one of those) in equal proportion, but that too is a symptom of the times. Take away the people that are inventing all the convoluted phraseology, and you’d take away the innovation as well.

And so to convergence. There’s a word. It may have existed before the IT revolution – “The massed forces of Napoleon’s armies converged on the plain,” for example – but we’ve taken it and made it our own. Convergence means different things to different people, and given that it looks like it is becoming a very important word indeed, it is worth exploring a couple of these meanings.

IT is all about convergence. Convergent pressure comes from the top down, as a counter to complexity. My dubious understanding of evolutionary theory tells me that it is as much about diversification as survival of the fittest. Innovation is another word for the relentless drive by vendors to release new products, and providers to release new services, in the hope that some of them will become as popular as Windows, Google or the iPhone. Deep in the infrastructure as well, plenty of new-and-improved technologies deliver all kinds of clever benefits, but only add to the complexity of the infrastructure.

Understandably, then, IT environments start to hit issues of fragmentation, complexity management and interoperability. We’re seeing it right now with virtualisation for example – lots of benefits, cost savings etc but we’re only starting to see some of the issues - virtual server sprawl, back-end bottlenecks - that ensue when virtualisation moves out of the pilot and into production.

Meanwhile, convergence also comes from the bottom up. New technological advances tend to get subsumed into the infrastructure or application architecture – which is why we see waves of merger and acquisition activity throughout the history of IT. But it’s not just about making different things work together – it’s also recognition that certain technologies, which may start independently to solve separate problems, eventually need to come together in some ways.

And so in the telecoms world we have that wonderfully obscure acronym, FMC, which stands for fixed-mobile convergence – bringing together traditional telephone infrastructures with mobile infrastructures. We’re also seeing the convergence phenomenon in the data centre. Or, more importantly, in how the different devices in the data centre communicate with each other - that is, storage, servers and communications devices.

IT has always been about processing information and moving it around. Historically, the three types of device have evolved along their own, discrete-yet-interoperable paths. But right now the industry is coming to terms with the fact that there can be only one data movement standard that all devices share. Without getting into the fuzzy words too much, this is called 10 gigabit Ethernet.

The timing for the convergence of data centre technologies couldn’t be better, given what we’re seeing with virtualisation. Note that it’s not just about everyone saying, 'let’s all use Ethernet'. Rather, the 10GbaseT standard has had to be defined to support a wide variety of requirements imposed by the data communications, application latency and storage throughput needs of modern IT environments. In other words, the data centre convergence we’re seeing is not only an inevitable step given the evolution of the underlying technologies, but it is responding to a real need caused by the fragmentation of today’s IT.

It’s important to see both together. There have been many kinds of technology convergence that have come at the wrong time – ie. they have not been responding to a significant enough need – and have fallen by the wayside. Examples include policy-based management of security, and perhaps even FMC, which will remain a slow-burn until it becomes a necessity. But for data centre convergence, the time could well be right.

Written at Fujitsu VISIT 09 conference during a keynote by Dan Warmenhoven, NetApp Chairman - who famously said "Never bet against Ethernet!"

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