Who speaks for multi-vendor environments?

Lack of a true multi-vendor data center management tool that provides choice of hardware, operational simplicity and end-to-end visibility is holding organizations back

Who speaks for multi-vendor environments?

A rack of servers in CERN’s Geneva data center, where it stores 160PB of data on disk and tape drives.

Credit: CERN

In 1980, the final episode of one my favorite TV shows, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, aired. In “Who Speaks for Earth?” Sagan summarized the mess that has become humanity and the impending doom that will befall Earth if things do not change. The episode also provides alternatives to that behavior and offers a way to save Earth but begs the big question of who actually speaks for Earth to enable the behavior change.

This is not unlike what’s happening in the data center today. It’s been well documented on this site and others that the data center is currently a mess. Data centers are built on repeatable building blocks, but configuration is still done manually. In Cosmos, Sagan gave the planet only a minuscule percentage chance of surviving if humans didn’t change their ways. Similarly, organizations must change the way they operate data centers if they are to make it in an increasingly digital world where speed is everything. 

Most of the main data center vendors have built better automation tools for their specific environments. While this is fine and something that has been sorely needed for a long time, it doesn’t address the larger data center. Most enterprises have more than one network vendor in their data center. Also, white box products have become increasingly popular as a top-of-rack switch, and the industry has seen an explosion in the number of options available. 

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I’ll certainly tip my hat to companies such as Cisco, Arista, Juniper, Brocade and Avaya for making it easier to automate process in their environments. But I have ask: “Who speaks for multi-vendor environments?” Organizations are forced to make a tough choice. Either standardize on a single vendor and give up the option of bringing best-of-breed or low-cost alternatives in at a later date, or go the multi-vendor route and have to overcome these challenges:

  • Lack of multi-vendor skills. Each time a new vendor is introduced, the company must hire a few engineers skilled with that vendor’s products and operating systems. This can get prohibitively expensive very fast and is something most businesses can’t even consider today.
  • White-box-specific issues. The term “white box” is very broad. Some white boxes are basic switches with a bare bones operating system and limited support. Others offer rich feature sets and better support models. The challenge with white boxes is the experience varies widely from vendor to vendor. Using white boxes requires interoperability testing and normally some type of software engineer to build to custom feature sets on the white box. If you’re Facebook or Amazon, no problem. If you’re everyone else, big problem.
  • No “single pane of glass.” Again, most vendors have built a dashboard for their own products, but multi-vendor environments typically require numerous “single panes of glass” and a lot of manual integration and correlation. Unless the engineer has the intellect of Mr. Spock or Sagan, dashboard sprawl doesn’t really help with long-term management.

Software-defined networks (SDNs) were supposed to be a panacea to all of these problems. But that hasn’t been the case. Multi-vendor SDN environments have proven to be far more complicated than single-vendor environments, so customers have gravitated primarily to a turnkey model. I like the turnkey model, and it may be right for some organizations, but multi-vendor SDN should be achievable for those who want it. 

Ultimately, this isn’t just an IT problem. It’s a business problem. The state of data center operations means things move slowly—too slowly for the digital era. My research shows that 90 percent of IT projects are either delivered late, over budget or cancelled all together—not exactly the definition of a digital company. 

I’m not saying this is all because of network operations, but the lack of a true multi-vendor data center management tool that provides choice of hardware, operational simplicity and end-to-end visibility is holding organizations back. 

So I ask again, who speaks for multi-vendor? Let’s have an answer soon or Sagan’s prediction of what happens to Earth will befall the data center.

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