Rise of the machines: systems integration in a converged world

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This article appeared in the May 2015 issue of CRN magazine.

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Rise of the machines: systems integration in a converged world
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It’s the customer’s ultimate dream: they need some IT for their business, so they order ‘some computer’ as a single line item from a single supplier. It’s turned on. They get back to running their core business. This may be a tantalising promise for customers, but what fate for systems integrators (SIs), whose value to the market is the black art of making disparate systems talk to one another? 

Plug-and-play is a selling point of cloud, and has driven a drastic simplification of how IT is purchased. But this is not the sole domain of cloud; it’s gaining traction in the infrastructure world with converged and hyper-converged appliances. 

What started as a trickle of converged infrastructure offerings, such as VCE’s Vblock and the FlexPod from Cisco and NetApp, has become a torrent. The early entrants continue to succeed, with Cisco and NetApp claiming more than $2 billion in annual sales while VCE claimed its offerings hit an annualised run rate of $1.8 billion nearly a year ago. Meanwhile, the impressive growth of hyper-converged darling Nutanix, as well as expanding outfit SimpliVity, demonstrate the value customers find in these all-in-one solutions.

VMware recently validated the market for hyper-converged solutions by releasing its EVO:RAIL reference architecture. EVO:RAIL is a highly restrictive hardware specification that defines how hardware partners – including Dell, HP and SuperMicro – should configure EVO:RAIL compatible appliances. VMware has provided software that simplifies the deployment of their hypervisor and associated components on this hardware, and partners are free to add their own software.

This ‘product on demand’ (POD) approach is not the sole domain of appliance vendors: distributors are also getting in on the action by providing pre-configured systems for the channel. Local distributor Distribution Central bundles software with hardware to create solutions such as their RecoveryPOD which combines Commvault Simpana, Fujitsu servers, and NetApp storage (with some AWS Glacier on the side) to provide a pre-built backup and recovery solution.

The whole point of these offerings is to make it easier for customers to buy and install them. There are no ‘nerd knobs’ to tune, no complex 80-page installation manuals to follow. These solutions are designed to be deployed quickly and easily. The customer buys one, it gets installed, they go back to running their business. The solutions come pre-integrated, so there is no ‘systems integration’ to be done. Or is there?

Appliances, PODs, pre-configured solutions – call them what you will – they follow the same principle. Multiple products are combined together – some hardware, some software – in a ready-made solution for a given problem. 

This brave new world of easy-to-use IT has real implications for SIs. They were once the holders of secret knowledge of how to get these systems to work with one another. If hardware and software comes bundled together in the form of appliances, what exactly are the integrators to, well, integrate?

Reference architectures may simplify the process of hooking up one technology with another, but there is still an integration job to do, says Mark Migallo, director of channels, Tintri Australia and New Zealand.

“Reference architectures developed by vendors are a well-documented instruction manual that removes the guess work of hoping that what you build works. They’ve led to faster project deployment times with greater success, but it’s still up to customers’ IT teams and SIs or resellers to buy the components, configure and assemble them.”

It’s easy to see the appeal of pre-configured systems. Why deal with the complexities of a Hardware Compatibility List yourself when someone else has done the hard work for you?

Migallo sees distributors becoming a more important part of the supply chain as the number and variety of vendor technologies increases. “Distributors are taking on a larger, more important role than even half a decade ago. They’re seeing an opportunity to make it easier for resellers to take on emerging and disruptive technologies by providing training, resources and white label services that partners can re-brand and resell.”

John McCloskey, general manager of enterprise, Dell Australia and New Zealand, tends to agree. “All converged infrastructure is doing is making it simpler to integrate the management stack."

“As manufacturers, we want to take solutions to market in a more simplified manner. The ‘software defined’ approach is gaining momentum. You’re going to see common stack and management systems. It’s coming together now.”

Next: is converged over-hyped?

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