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Pick your hardware vision: Open Compute Project vs. 'data centers in a box'

Two opposing trends gaining momentum in IT hardware procurement: Open source design vs. convergence

By , Network World
July 12, 2013 08:45 AM ET

Network World - There are two trends happening in the IT hardware market, each gaining momentum but offering very different ways of outfitting data centers.

On the one hand, companies with enormous data centers such as Facebook, Rackspace, Google and Goldman Sachs are creating their own compute, storage and network devices using cheap, commodity components. The pieces are built to a standard - organized by the Open Compute Project (OCP) - to ensure they interoperate, and they are then are assembled to create hardware that is finely tuned to the specific needs of an organization. This “disaggregation” of hardware allows one company to have a system that is optimized for high-storage capacity with low CPU, for example, while another company could customize the hardware for intense reading capabilities, but low writing.

[RELATED: How Facebook aims to reinvent hardware]

Contrast that with another trend gaining momentum: convergence. Systems like the vBlock from VCE combine technology form EMC, Cisco and VMware, while other companies like Simplivity, Nutanix and others offer converging hardware components for compute, networking and storage in a single system, optimized to work together and packaged as a single offering. These “data centers in a box,” as some call them, reduce the complexity of installing hardware, proponents say, and allow for easy scale-up.

“They are diverging paths, but they’re both happening for the right reasons,” says David Cappuccio, who advises clients on data center designs as a Gartner analyst.

The convergence trend is being fueled by legacy vendors who want to own more of the data center stack, he says. There are benefits from the customer standpoint, too, though. If an enterprise IT department is an HP, Cisco or IBM shop, getting converged hardware from their vendor of choice gives them one throat to choke, and a single vendor relationship to manage. It’s a “best of brand” approach of buying hardware from a single vendor versus a “best of breed” model of getting hardware components from multiple vendors, he says.  

Simplivity has created the OmniCube, a hyper-converged system that does the work of up to a dozen appliances – including compute, storage, networking, deduplication, backup and WAN optimization – all in one. Instead of buying multiple hardware devices from many vendors, Simplivity sells a single system that’s hypervisor and hardware agnostic. “It’s a stack that takes commodity resources and harnesses them together for easy management,” says Doron Kempel, founder of the company.

Meanwhile, OCP backers are looking to make hardware cheaper and more standardized. Large web-scale shops work directly with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to get the cheapest price point, then buy in bulk. They assemble the systems using cookie-cutter-like precision. Most recently, at Interop this year, OCP announced it would begin working on open source networking components, in addition to the compute, storage and data center design work the OCP has focused on.

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