My former boss, who is still a mentor today, had a saying: "Success in life is the elimination of variables." Words to live by and words that the storage community must have heard. The biggest variable they deal with when installing a solution into their environment is the variable of, well, their environment.No manufacturer can make their lab identical to every data center that their solution will be installed in. To eliminate this variable, manufacturers have developed appliances with their solution preinstalled on them. If you look under the covers of most of these appliances, there's really not much special to them. Typically they're just off-the-shelf hardware, probably running Linux in some form. The special part is that it's a "known," and no longer a variable. Every system they provide has the same memory, processors, network I/O cards, etc. The result is that these solutions are up and running faster, with fewer support calls back to the manufacturer. Everybody wins.
Variable elimination isn't perfect. The challenge with appliances is that it costs the manufacturers money and at some point they have to change the hardware to keep up with processing upgrades and network I/O upgrades. When there is a platform refresh it also causes challenges within your data center. First you have to allow a potentially foreign platform manufacturer into your data center, or, even more ironically, you may pay extra for a platform that you already have. You also need power, cooling, and rackspace for the appliance. As server virtualization becomes common and, in fact, integrated into the OS, why can't the manufacturers simply provide images? This still delivers a common platform for them to support -- the hypervisor -- keeping support costs down. This can be delivered as a server image that can be installed into the virtualization OS. True, you would have to learn how to get the image loaded and start the virtual machine. It might cause some extra steps on the networking side, but these struggles are far offset by having a solution that can be delivered simply and without using additional power, cooling, or rackspace. Storage hardware manufacturers can and will eventually participate in this situation, and some already are. There are a few manufacturers that already allow their software to run as a virtual machine. There are a few that will allow other virtual machines to run on their appliances. Realistically, there will be a need for customized hardware for storage performance for the foreseeable future. The unique hardware requirement will be the shelf itself; the software IP can live as a series of virtual machines on a group of Virtualization hosts.
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George Crump is founder of Storage Switzerland, an analyst firm focused on the virtualization and storage marketplaces. It provides strategic consulting and analysis to storage users, suppliers, and integrators. An industry veteran of more than 25 years, Crump has held engineering and sales positions at various IT industry manufacturers and integrators. Prior to Storage Switzerland, he was CTO at one of the nation's largest integrators.