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Virtualisation takes the strain

Stack it up

And all of this talks to service orchestration software which ensures the user-facing services are supported smoothly, with minimal disruption. Welcome to the world of the integrated stack.

Vendors have woken up to the need for a computing stack in which all the layers are tightly connected, and they are offering pre-certified integrated stacks. All of the components, from storage through to servers and applications, are provided out of the box, so they are easy to set up and guaranteed to work together.

Some companies have built integrated stacks on their own, including IBM, which has all of the components that it needs to put everything into one box. It can even layer the software on top.

Companies are also partnering with others to fill in the gaps in their portfolio, creating integrated stacks with all of the parts they need.

VMware, EMC and Cisco have  teamed up to create the vBlock offerings, for example, which offer certified storage, networking and computing capabilities in a pre-certified bundle. Cisco also works with NetApp on the competitive Flexpod offering.

Purvis says: “Standardising, abstracting and automating the IT components that business functions and end-users do not interact with directly means these components can be designed in a common, building-block manner.

"They can be highly optimised and made efficient, offering lower costs and better reliability and resiliency.”

In some ways, this takes us right back to the old days, creating a mainframe-like culture in which we trade infrastructural openness for a service-led focus.

Buying an integrated stack pre-configured from a single vendor is not exactly a reinvention of the mainframe, but it has many of the same characteristics and it risks locking people into a single supplier.

An alternative is to focus on the benefits of stack integration while leveraging open interfaces at each layer. Some standards initiatives are already moving in that direction.

Facebook’s Open Compute Project, for example, specifies a range of standard specifications in areas ranging from rack mounting (including high-speed backplanes for connecting servers and storage) through to hardware management tools.  

Don't fence me in

At the software level, the various products should allow user choice. Systems management software platforms should allow for the use of multiple hypervisors, for example, and should manage virtual machines, along with storage and networking, regardless.

“Any organisation considering cloud computing has to consider the vendor lock-in question,” says Rocky Heckman, a technical evangelist for Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform.

“That is why it is critical that they go with a vendor that supports industry standard technologies such as .NET, PHP, Java or Ruby, so that workloads can be transferred to other providers or back in-house.”

Purvis notes the rapid adoption of cloud computing and points to what he calls its key advantage: the overall reduction of vendor lock-in.

“In previous computing models – the mainframe era, the mid-range and Unix era, the large x86/x64 client-server era – hardware vendors exerted much more incumbency power over businesses and enterprise IT departments,” he says.

“With the advent of x86/x64 virtualisation capabilities, the abstraction and standardisation that cloud capabilities offer, these vendors are now forced to compete on the overall value, capabilities and price of their hardware items."

Smart tailoring

At the application level, both proprietary and open source software choices should be available to users who want to mix and match their own solutions, while creating a highly functional, service-aware stack. Customers interested in an integrated stacks do not have to get it all from a single vendor.

At both the hardware and software layers, they should be free to swap out key components in favour of third-party solutions and, so that they can configure the stack to their own precise requirements. After all, tailoring a compute solution to a specific workflow is what integrated stacks are supposed to be about.

Microsoft provides customers and partners with standard blueprints that can be used to assist in building and deploying private clouds, while supporting a variety of third-party products, according to Purvis.

“The Fast Track programme provides pre-integrated and tested solution designs from both Microsoft and various hardware partners that customers can use to implement solutions easily,” he says.

This idea of an open integrated stack has benefits for a service-oriented architecture. It enables you to mix and spread workloads across different sections of your architecture, without worrying about whether the Oracle/Sun stack you bought this year is going to work with that IBM Cloudburst stuff you forked out for the year before.

Thinking about these open interfaces upfront is an important component of datacentre architecture planning. Keeping options open will allow your datacentre to stay flexible.

Purvis offers a final thought: make sure you include more than just technology in your infrastucture plans.

“The IT organisation need to be updated to provide a more collaborative team dynamic, with each team member much more aware of the overall IT objectives and how their peers contribute to the delivery of the IT service,” he advises.

Cloud architecture is all about silo busting. Avoiding vendor lock-in is one form of it, and so is creating links between teams of IT specialists so they understand the impacts that other specialists make within the cloud infrastructure.

A truly sophisticated cloud architecture extends to the team, helping them to understand how they benefit each other in the delivery of IT services. ®

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