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Converged Infrastructure: The Next Big Thing

If you were to ask any group of IT managers, you would likely get agreement that too much time and too many resources are spent maintaining the separate hardware and software components that make up an IT system. According to IDC, companies spend roughly 70 percent of their annual IT budgets on just keeping their systems running. That comes out to about $2.5 trillion globally.

All that may be changing, however, in large part because of the growing popularity of prebuilt and pre-integrated systems known as converged infrastructure. The hefty price tag of IT maintenance will inevitably drop as companies move to a more simplified IT system that can often work right out of the box.

At the heart of the converged infrastructure boom are the very same forces that have made other technologies like cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS) popular. “We’re seeing a large number of servers of many different types running a variety of workloads,” says John Biebelhausen, Worldwide Offering Manager for PureFlex™ at IBM. “There is a complexity to managing all of these servers in that environment while meeting the growing demands on storage and new workload growth.”

But while cloud and SaaS have made the process of running IT systems more manageable, the tradeoff with these technologies can be less control over the system. Converged infrastructure solutions aim to give back some of that control.

Saving time and money

In an era of ever-increasing data and devices, the simplified platform and centralized management of converged infrastructure can be a relief. A pre-integrated system can mean less staff time and lower expenses focused on maintenance. After reviewing a sample group of over 300 IBM customers, Biebelhausen found that companies that implemented IBM PureFlex experienced on average a 30 percent reduction in operating expenses.

Surely a large part of this cost reduction is due to the advantages that come with buying and implementing something that works right out of the box. Tom Brey, PureFlex Chief Architect at IBM, says that when done correctly, converged infrastructure can get a company up and running almost instantaneously. “You don’t have to hook a serial cable or Ethernet cable into each component, and then start integrating component to component. With PureFlex, we’ve handled all the intra-rack cabling, integrating all these components together so it arrives as a complete system, ready to run.”

What’s more, a pre-integrated system can make for a more reliable IT environment. Dan Hiss, North American PureFlex Sales Enablement Leader at IBM, explains that with the vendor making the ultimate decision as to which components work best in tandem, a direct result of leaving the decision up to the “experts” is the reduced downtime of the overall IT system. “With traditional systems, companies really struggle with the islands of IT and making sure that all the interconnections are optimized and are working properly. With converged infrastructure, a lot of the guesswork and the connecting of the elements together is already done.”

But for all the talk about saving money and improving systems performance, there are other less measurable, but no less important, benefits. For the IT staff whose days are filled with the tedious and highly repetitive tasks associated with IT maintenance, converged infrastructure offers a real opportunity to refocus their efforts on other, more creative ways to use technology. Hiss believes that this is a natural fit for smaller companies. “Midsize businesses are primed to adopt converged infrastructure because they have a smaller number of personnel that need to be cross-trained on servers, storage and networking,” he explains. For these companies, improving IT staff productivity is not only desirable, it can be downright necessary.

What to watch out for

According to Brey, there are multiple converged infrastructure vendors to choose from and, as with any other technology purchase, companies need to do their homework. “When deciding to run converged systems, a company needs to think about the integrity of the order that they're going to place with the vendor and whether or not they'll continually be ordering components until every last port is up and running. As previously mentioned, this is not the case with PureFlex, which can arrive ready to run.”

Hiss adds that when selecting a converged system, companies should know that converged infrastructure is more than just cobbling components together. “There should be some level of automation associated with the management of that environment and it should cover a broader scope of the environment than simply one or two pieces of infrastructure,” he explains. “Before jumping in with any particular vendor of converged infrastructure, you should consider how this is going to not only integrate into your environment, but how is it going to leverage your existing IT investments, which may or may not be amortized, and will it support your IT needs five to ten years down the road.”

"Companies are asking their IT departments to be revenue-generating, no longer is the sole job of IT to simply keep the lights on."

What’s more, companies need to be aware that not all converged infrastructure offerings require an IT department to “rip and replace” its systems. “Some companies have had trouble with converged infrastructure because it can feel like a forklift approach to getting into this segment of the market,” notes Hiss. “Converged infrastructures, especially from our competition, tend to be very vendor locking and limited in how they scale, and also very limited in terms of what their options are.” On the other hand, the IBM PureFlex system aims to be more flexible by offering options for companies that do not want an entirely new system.

Is it right for you?

IDC estimates that overall spending on converged infrastructure will reach over $17 billion by 2016. Biebelhausen draws a parallel between converged infrastructure and the rise and subsequent popularity of blade servers a decade ago. “With blades over 10 years ago, IBM was the first company to introduce this idea of a high-density package with servers on a completely different paradigm, and now it is a very robust category that represents 20 percent to 30 percent of every server sold. Now the same phenomenon is beginning to occur with converged infrastructure.”

So the question is, how do you know if the benefits of a converged solution are right for you to make the switch? For all the enthusiasm in the marketplace surrounding converged infrastructure, there are specific signs that a company should seriously consider a pre-integrated system. Companies that have infrastructure that has grown too complex or too unwieldy, for example, are often the first in line to simplify. And then there are those companies that regularly face lengthy deployment times that have made it harder for projects to see the light of day. Organizations with these issues will likely see rapid results.

Probably the most glaring signal, however, is the company that allots too much staff and budget to maintenance of the IT systems. As infrastructure ages and companies take on more applications, data and devices, spending increasing amounts of money on IT maintenance will eventually bring companies to a standstill. And with the increasing importance of the IT manager’s role, this likely won’t be supported. Hiss explains, “Companies are asking their IT departments to be revenue generating. No longer is the sole job of IT to simply keep the lights on."

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