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Building a data centre has traditionally been a long process, with one of the major tasks being to equip it with computing devices. Specifying these, testing the various configurations and ensuring that they meet the specifications and perform the required tasks is time-consuming.

It was a lot easier in the days of the mainframe where you bought a single box, and added to it as your needs grew. Therefore what you need today is a mainframe equivalent but composed of modern computing devices.

This is the promise made by IT equipment vendors such as HP and Cisco in particular. Cisco's Unified Computing System and HP's BladeSystem Matrix aim to remove the long-winded specification process, by putting everything you need for a data centre computing system in a box - servers, storage and networking - and ensuring it all works together.

Boxing clever?

This, say HP and Cisco, brings a range of benefits, the key one being lower TCO or total cost of ownership - Cisco reckons you'll save 20 per cent on capital expenditure, HP claims 56 per cent off total costs of ownership - and an increase in productivity.

The lower costs stem from a high level of integration of servers, virtualisation and management systems, together with converged storage and networking. It means that a single system can be managed more easily, with a single pane of glass, and scalability, and therefore business agility, are increased by the ease with which extra resources can be switched on as required.

Both system vendors also assert big cost reductions in connectivity and the numbers of servers required for a given computing load, as well as lower provisioning costs as a result of automation.

So there's a Cloud angle, right?

This all sounds remarkably like a cloud and this is indeed how both vendors are pitching their systems, with HP describing its BladeSystem Matrix as offering the benefits of shared services and a private cloud environment, such as automated service delivery.

Cisco claims similar benefits, adding that power savings can be had as a result of its system using half the number of components and less cabling and power/cooling than a traditional server installation.

Unstated by the vendors is an assumed lack of finger-pointing: in theory at least, you only have one neck to wring should things go wrong. Even though Cisco's system is made up of products from a number of vendors, while HP makes and delivers all the components, it certifies the system as a whole.

"One neck to wring should things go wrong ... in theory"

Cost reductions will be the big attraction for a unified system but buyers again need to be sure the costs savings apply to them. Both vendors' figures presume installation into a greenfield site and, while this may not be the scenario that applies to you, you will probably need to make it so in order to gain the best of the benefits of a unified system.

What you will inevitably lose is the ability to select products that fit particular situations, or ones that you are comfortable with and which have been proven to work with your backup and management systems, for example.

Stacking up

You need also to be content with single-sourcing, a route that many companies have avoided because of the dangers - perceived or real - of lock-in and the attendant problems of price inflexibility.

Buyers might also take account of independent reviews which suggest that the integration promised by both vendors is not always quite as seamless as they claim.

In practice, however, the advantages or otherwise of a single system need to be assessed by organisations in the light of their business needs. Unified systems vendors hope that the promise of lower costs will persuade financial directors to opt for a system in a box rather than the mix and match approach that has tended to apply until now. ®

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