Three essential steps to a software defined data center

It's the data center of the future, but just how do you get there?

Imagine this in your data center: A swath of compute, networking and storage hardware from a variety of different vendors that are all controlled not individually but by software that overlays the entire operation.

Sound like a fantasy? It's the idea behind the software defined data center (SDDC) and research firm Enterprise Management Associates has declared that 2014 is the year for enterprises to seriously take a look at it.  

But how do you get there? EMA analyst and blogger Torsten Volk has outlined three key priorities to adopting a SDDC strategy.

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First of all: Why is the SDDC such a big deal? EMA says that the needs of business users are surpassing the capacity of the IT department to serve it. Taking a software-defined approach can help alleviate this schism. “At the core of the SDDC is the belief that in order to better serve the business, IT infrastructure -- internal and external -- must be controlled centrally and become radically aligned along application and service requirements,” Volk wrote in an expansive research report on the topic.

But, the SDDC is not a specific technology. “The biggest leap of faith for many organizations is to no longer select new servers, network switches or storage purely by performance and features, but by the way they can fit within the new centralized management strategy,” he said.

It may sound daunting, but EMA says there are three keys to having an SDDC:

1) Capacity management

A SDDC is about rapidly provisioning hardware to users. But, a critical element to that is to ensure there is enough capacity to provision. One of the first steps in a SDDC migration is to ensure that your data center/IT shop has enough capacity for the needs of the organization, applications and services. You can’t automate the provisioning of resources unless you have enough resources to serve the business. Level setting the needs of the business and ensuring you have the capacity is an essential first step. There are a variety of tools that can help with this, including ones from BMC (PractiveNet), CA Performance Management and even smaller providers like VMTurbo.  

2) Multi-virtualization and multi-cloud management platforms

Data centers will have complicated architectures. It’s rare today to find a data center that’s all in with one vendor; it’s usually a mix of technologies from multiple different providers. Maybe a business used to be a VMware shop for its virtualization but it’s recently begun using Microsoft Hyper-V. Maybe it has used Amazon Web Services, but it wants to start using a private cloud from a more niche service provider. A key to managing this complex, heterogeneous environment is to have a multi-virtualization and multi-cloud management platform, EMA says. Increasingly, cloud management vendors are embracing a strategy of supporting multiple platforms. EMA says users adopting these types of platforms will be a key to managing a SDDC.

3) Configuration management

Another key to a true SDDC approach is to move from a manual to automatic provisioning of resources. This would be exemplified by an operations professional getting the specifications of an application or service, then setting up the hardware on a case by case basis. The more efficient alternative is to instead automatically provision based on the applications need. This is basically the idea behind a “devops” mentality, meaning that developers and operations folks work much closer together. Tools like Puppet and Chef help companies achieve automatic provisioning. Whereas capacity management will ensure there are enough resources to provision, configuration management will automatically allocate those resources without the need to have manual scripts.  

Overall, the idea of the SDDC, Volk explains, is that it provides an additional layer of abstraction above the hardware components, public and private cloud, which “empowers applications to define their own environments, based on performance, security, availability and further policy requirements."

A SDDC can lead to faster provisioning of resources, which can lead to happier end users. As part of the research, EMA interviewed both end users and IT practitioners. It found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the slower IT takes to deliver IT resources, the less happy end users are. More than 70% of end users expect an IT project to take less than two weeks. Meanwhile, IT professionals say they don’t have the tools needed to speed up delivery: 40% of IT managers said there is a slow manual process to reconfigure infrastructure to accommodate changes requested by the business units.

EMA calls the SDDC the "golden path" for dealing with these IT management issues.

Senior Writer Brandon Butler covers cloud computing for Network World and NetworkWorld.com. He can be reached at BButler@nww.com and found on Twitter at @BButlerNWW. Read his Cloud Chronicles here.  

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