Examining the value props of a converged infrastructure


19 April 2014
Tan Ee Sze

If you were to find yourself locked up in a luxury suite, would you bask in the luxury or would you fixate on the lock on the door?

If you were to deploy a converged infrastructure with its promise of “four times faster time-to-deployment with 79 per cent less staff effort, five times faster time-to-market for new services, and 96 per cent reduction in downtime”, would you embrace it wholeheartedly or would you be gripped by worries over vendor lock-in?

By one definition (there are variations based on degree of integration and workload specificity), converged infrastructure refers to the combination of servers, storage, networking, and sometimes also software, into a single optimised system. IDC tracks this as the integrated infrastructure and platforms market, with platforms referring to systems that are sold with pre-integrated packaged software, and infrastructure referring to integrated systems leveraging the same building blocks but not optimised for any specific workload.

In recent months, this converged infrastructure segment has been a bright spot in an otherwise lacklustre server market. In December last year, the International Data Corporation Worldwide Quarterly Integrated Infrastructure and Platforms Tracker reported an impressive 68.5 per cent year-on-year growth in the integrated infrastructure and platforms market during the third calendar quarter of 2013, with systems sales totalling US$1.4 billion.

Leading the vendor pack was VCE with market share estimates ranging from 16.8 per cent (IDC tracking based on integrated infrastructure and platforms, December 2013) to 57.4 per cent (Gartner tracking based on integrated infrastructure systems, January 2013).

Formed by Cisco and EMC with investments from VMWare and Intel, one of VCE’s value propositions is that its Vblock systems present a less costly and less manpower-intensive way to build and manage infrastructure. According to VCE, the integrated approach allows IT departments to bring down expenditure on operations and maintenance, estimated to take up 70 per cent of today’s stagnant IT budgets, to around 30-40 per cent (a target that VCE and its parent companies have said is achievable).

Vblock is manufactured as a system, explained Frank Hauck, a 20-year EMC veteran who is now President Asia Pacific & Japan, VCE. In terms of physical build, it is put together in the factory as a system incorporating the network, computing and storage components. In terms of logical build, it is configured to the customer’s use case. It is managed as a unit with the VCE Vision Intelligent Operations software, which enables the Vblock system to be seen and managed as a single converged infrastructure object. And it is supported as a unit – the proverbial “one neck to choke” - with 90 per cent of problems resolved without having to engage investor companies, said Hauck, who was in Singapore in March to strengthen the company’s presence in this part of the world.

So far, things have panned out well, with parent and investor companies working to incorporate their latest technologies in the Vblock system. In the last product launch in September 2013, the new Vblock System 340 featured EMC’s new VNX storage arrays, VMware’s new ESXi 5.5 hypervisor, Cisco Unified Computing System server nodes and Intel’s Xeon E5-4600 processors.

Tight integration, however, is a double-edged proposition. Enterprises are known to be chary over this because of fears over vendor lock-in. When HP rolled out its converged infrastructure strategy in 2010/2011, it took pains to assure customers that the infrastructure would be built on open standards, so that customers could use any combination of other vendors’ hardware and networking gear in conjunction with HP equipment.

But the benefits of an optimised converged system are a direct result of tight integration, and to deviate from this would be to detract from its value proposition. The trade-off is inevitable. To take full advantage of an integrated system, enterprises will have to give up some degree of choice.

For some, the quandary is eased somewhat by the fact that EMC, VMWare, Cisco and Intel are not one player but four (or three, if you count VMWare as part of EMC), which are pretty dominant players in their respective segments. Existing enterprise customers would certainly be more open to adopting these technologies as one converged system. For VCE, the potential quandary would be whether the alliance of parent companies and investors would be able to hold against the potential eroding of revenues to their offspring.

This will be an interesting market to watch as players test their allegiances and enterprises test their appetite for yet another paradigm shift.