Jan 27 2012

Converged Infrastructure Unifies the Data Center

Blending servers, storage and switches improves manageability and control.

At the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, convergence and consolidation top the priorities for the agency’s massive IT organization. Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology Roger Baker says supporting five general-use data centers and four that run a specialized health information system requires as much intermeshing of infrastructure as possible.

“We are probably the largest consolidated IT organization in the world, supporting 450,000 e-mail inboxes and 380,000 desktops and laptops all over a single national network,” Baker says.

While the VA’s primary focus has been virtualizing its 15,000 physical servers, IT has in its sights convergence of the total infrastructure — servers, switches and storage. “Our mission is to provide an effective virtual environment for development, testing, integration, preproduction and production applications,” Baker says. The agency is currently test-driving a few self-contained converged infrastructure solutions that could help it achieve that goal faster and with fewer enterprise resources and staff members.

Building Blocks

A converged infrastructure blends servers, storage and switches into a preconfigured fabric that is optimized to support virtualization, cloud computing and other popular IT initiatives. Rather than having sprawling racks of disparate hardware, converged infrastructure offers a unified and easily managed data center approach.

Many manufacturers offer some type of converged infrastructure. For example, VMware, Cisco Systems and EMC have partnered to offer the VCE Vblock system of integrated servers, storage and switching. Cisco also has teamed with NetApp for NetApp’s FlexPod offering of integrated Cisco virtualization-ready blade servers, Nexus switches and NetApp storage. Fujitsu, HP and other major manufacturers also offer some type of converged infrastructure.

“Converged infrastructure is a compelling alternative to traditional data centers because it saves a lot in terms of deployment and initial configuration,” says Jim Frey, managing research director at Enterprise Management Associates.

Disruptive projects involving virtual desktop infrastructure, private clouds, social networking, mobile access and interactive media could benefit from converged infrastructure, according to Frey.

Baker sees the strategy as a good match for projects whose standard release requirements include the elements of the all-in-one boxes. For instance, if a project calls for Cisco blade servers and switches and EMC storage, then Baker says the ready-to-roll Vblock would make sense.

One concern Baker has, though, is vendor lock-in for three critical elements of the data center. He also wants to be sure that committing to a single box will result in full utilization rather than creating islands of bandwidth, CPU and the like that can’t be reached. “We have to be much more careful about our choices because in government, it’s much harder to change horses midstream,” he says.

Homegrown Strategy

At the U.S. Department of State, the IT team is taking a different approach to converged infrastructure. Instead of relying on a packaged solution, Ray Brow, data center consolidation chief, says the agency is functioning as its own integrator.

The agency is consolidating 14 domestic data centers into two (one on the East Coast power grid and one on the West Coast power grid) to improve cost efficiencies and better serve its 60,000 users around the world. Server virtualization across the agency’s 3,000 physical servers is currently at 55 percent, but the agency expects to eventually reach a target of 70 percent.

While the State Department initially considered Cisco’s Unified Computing System for use in the soon-to-open Denver site, IT staff felt it wasn’t ready for such a deployment yet but wanted to mimic the intent. The group deployed blade servers integrated with Nexus switches and converged all network traffic, which had been split between Fibre Channel on the back end and Ethernet on the front end, to an all-Ethernet backbone. “Our backup and replication networks had been physically separate. Now they’re together, but logically partitioned,” Brow says.

Converged infrastructure requires 85% less space than traditional servers and 85% less power for operation and cooling


The State Department also took a page from converged infrastructure equipment makers by committing to a single manufacturer for each category: servers, switches and storage. “The No. 1 benefit is that you have one button to push when you have issues,” Brow says.

Staffing and training are also simplified because there are fewer types of hardware and software products to deal with, and the acquisition process becomes streamlined. While the agency has gone solo on integrating infrastructure thus far, Brow is not ruling out a move to self-contained units in the future. “It can be challenging getting even three vendors to talk when there’s an issue, so in the long run, I can see the benefit of running on a single platform,” he says.

EMA’s Frey is familiar with both Baker’s and Brow’s concerns about converged infrastructure. Though the upfront costs for packaged converged infrastructure solutions might be jarring, he says, it will be less expensive than buying all the piece parts for these projects and will help them be deployed much faster.