Integrated IT stack: Packaging the pieces of the virtualization puzzle

Integrated storage stacks offer one-stop shopping and deployment for virtual environments, but cost and support in multi-vendor bundles raise concerns.

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Some of the biggest names in the storage industry now offer integrated IT stacks for organizations looking to quickly deploy high-performance virtualized environments. EMC Corp., NetApp Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. sell predesigned  architectures that include the virtual server platform, networking and computing gear, and storage infrastructure in one package.

While it’s early for the integrated storage stacks, vendors and their distribution partners expect the trend toward data center consolidation around virtualization and cloud storage to spark interest in integrated stacks.

Pure-play storage vendors EMC and NetApp partnered with VMware Inc. for the vSphere virtualization hypervisor and Cisco Systems Inc. for networking equipment and its Unified Computing System (UCS). However, EMC and NetApp chose different go-to-market strategies.

EMC sells its storage in Vblock integrated IT stack through the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE),  a joint venture with Cisco. VMware and Intel are also investors. NetApp chose to market its FlexPod integrated system as a reference architecture, basically a recipe card for building the system with all the specified parts. NetApp VARs—such as Avnet Technology Solutions, which launched its FlexPod Services in May—will assemble, test and support the FlexPod for you.

Large IT vendors HP and Dell rolled out bundles this year, providing most of the hardware pieces themselves. The HP VirtualSystem platform uses the vSphere hypervisor along with HP storage, servers and networking. The smallest VirtualSystem bundle packages HP ProLiant servers, LeftHand P4500 SANs and HP Virtual Connect switch modules. The medium-sized bundle includes LeftHand P4800 storage running on an HP BladeSystem server with Virtual Connect. The high-end bundle is an HP BladeSystem with 3PAR storage and Fibre Channel SAN switches from Brocade.

Dell launched its vStart virtualization appliances with two models. Both include Dell’s EqualLogic iSCSI storage, PowerEdge rack servers and PowerConnect Ethernet switches. The vStart 100 is designed for running 100 virtual machines, and the vStart 200 is for 200 virtual machines. Dell has vStart versions for VMware and Microsoft Hyper-V and plans to offer Fibre Channel storage versions with its Compellent arrays.

Radiant Communications picks NetApp for cloud foundation

Radiant Communications, a Vancouver, British Columbia, service provider, uses a NetApp FlexPod for the cloud computing service it began offering in November 2010. The FlexPod runs virtual servers and applications such as Microsoft Exchange. Jason Leeson, Radiant’s vice president of product management, said the initial deployment cost was the top consideration when the service provider compared Vblock and FlexPod bundles.

“[An integrated IT stack] was very much what we were looking for—a secure, multi-tenancy reference architecture,” Leeson said. “Given that we are a service provider selling multi-tenant services, and most of our customers are concerned about security, that seemed like a very good fit for us.

“The key for me was the cost to get into the game.”

Radiant was looking to keep costs down with its new service. Leeson said even a small Vblock would have cost between $300,000 and $500,000. He knew he couldn’t get approval for that much money.  He considered Vblocks better suited for enterprises that could better justify the larger investment.

Leeson said it cost less to put together a FlexPod, and he already had the VAR network to help him do it. Radiant used Vancouver-based Seven Group Inc. to acquire the necessary NetApp and VMware licenses and Scalar Decisions Inc., headquartered in Toronto, for the Cisco equipment, with Scalar taking the lead deploying the FlexPod. Radiant added another FlexPod in its Toronto office in June and engaged Toronto-based Unis Lumin Inc. to acquire the Cisco gear and deploy that FlexPod.

Solving the support puzzle

Vendor support for multi-vendor bundles can be a tricky issue. VCE has a dedicated support group, but FlexPods are just reference architectures with directions on how to integrate and configure equipment and software from three different companies. NetApp, Cisco and VMware did create a Unified Support Lab to help with FlexPod customer issues, but there are still products from three different major vendors involved.

Leeson said hasn’t experienced any support issues thus far. He relied on his VARs for deployment. He said he believes Radiant’s deployment was one of the first FlexPod implementations and, as a result, there was a steep learning curve, but it only cost him a couple of days.

Radiant is still in the early stages of using FlexPods in a production environment, but Leeson said he is gaining confidence in the system. “I’m getting more comfortable with the reliability of the underlying technology behind these FlexPod services to the point where we can put more customers on a storage array or more customers on a particular server than I was 18 months ago,” he said.

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