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Building the Next-Generation Virtualized Data Center

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Jun 11, 2009


What do EMC, VMware and Cisco have in common? They are all working together on the creation of a private cloud that takes virtualization to a whole new level — the virtual data center. The overall concept is one of corralling the dynamism and efficiency of the cloud so organizations can retain control and ensure security. Hard-Core Hardware: The software mainframe is a key component of the data center of the future.

Chuck Hollis, vice president and CTO of global marketing at EMC, said virtualization is the key technology behind this, as it provides the evolutionary path to the cloud. Eventually, he said, companies would be able to use their existing applications within a private cloud with no modifications.

"Private will be the dominant model for cloud," said Hollis of EMC (Hopkinton, Mass.). "We are working with Cisco and VMware as a virtual IT company to achieve this."

Ed Bugnion, CTO of the server access and virtualization business unit at Cisco Systems (San Jose, Calif.), backed this up by explaining how the company's Nexus line of switches are designed for virtualization. The Nexus 1000V, for example, was built specifically for VMware and extends the network into the vSphere layer. He tied this into Cisco's Unified Compute System (UCS).

"The Cisco UCS platform unifies computing and networking while enabling them to operate at scale," said Bugnion.

Parag Patel, vice president of alliances at VMware (Palo Alta, Calif.) positions vSphere as an OS for the entire data center that brings more flexibility and agility by abstracting out the infrastructure. This combines the advantages of an internal controlled data center and the on-demand nature of cloud computing.

"CTOs want to get out of the maintenance and plumbing business; they don't want to be stuck with always having to maintain what they bought, they want to be improving the business," said Patel. "That's why the cloud and SaaS are so popular; they divorce you from complexity."

These three companies believe they have the key ingredients to make the virtual data center work: the virtual switches, the virtualization-aware disk arrays and VMware itself, which Hollis calls the secret sauce. Application vendors then wrap their wares around this matrix.

Patel calls this a software mainframe, i.e. by abstracting all the underlying hardware, a massive pool of compute resources are managed within the virtualization layer. Eventually, you will be able to drop applications like SAP or Salesforce.com inside a virtual container to be obtained via a service provider.

"The traditional operating system was designed to manage all hardware resources and provide an environment for the application to operate," said Patel. "Now that the virtualization layer is sitting on the bare metal, the traditional OS doesn't need to do that anymore. However, special-purpose OSes still have a role."

Bugnion pointed out Cisco's work at the network layer to unify Fibre Channel and Ethernet in a virtual environment via Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE). Network interface virtualization standardization is also ongoing and will be available soon.

"This will transform the data center, as a lot of networking is based around the assumption that end points are fixed," said Bugnion. "The need for mobility of roaming devices and the introduction of virtual machines have transformed the requirements of the industry so network protocols adjusting."

In the meantime, VMware is working on a federated approach to virtualization so that it doesn't matter whether you are using your own internal infrastructure or that of an outside provider. What must be worked out, of course, are issues such as how to preserve ownership of data regardless of where it is physically located.

In terms of provisioning, this sort of virtual layout has obvious attraction. In the old days, big corporations might take 90 days to get a server out to the person requesting it. Several committees would have to meet, the request would pass through silos for networking, servers, storage and applications, not to mention budgeting before getting installed on the floor. That would be replaced by an online service portal with pre-built virtual resources which can be automatically provisioned and charged to business units as they are available on the cloud.

"If you only have virtual machines, but no virtual networking and storage, ESX server provisioning is slowed greatly," said Bugnion. "With vSphere and this new model, the direction is to provision all at the same time."

He believes that the driving force for adoption of this model into the enterprise could well be big government rather than the corporate world. The federal government, after all, typically has a more complex and largely process driven environment which makes it inflexible. As a result, the appeal of flexibility is significant in government circles — more so currently than within large enterprises.

"The Japan government and the U.S. Department of Defense are already creating their own private cloud," said Hollis.

He thinks the cloud will dominate among SMBs, as they just don't want to be saddled with their own internal hardware. In evidence, he points to the disappearance of answering machines from most businesses in favor of third-party hosted voice mail. No SMB would even think of assembling the hardware and software necessary to run its own voice mail infrastructure due to cost.

Bugnion sees this all as a matter of scale. The days when IT gave its servers the names of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings characters are gone. There are now so many servers and so many virtual machines that systems management has to move beyond the provisioning and maintaining of individual machines. Thus, everything is being assembled into larger building blocks — a complete package of CPU, RAM, storage and application in a virtual wrapping.

"There are phenomenal inefficiencies in today's infrastructure," said Bugnion.

Take the case of the amount of power the data center consumes. Regardless of the fact that workloads peak during the day, the curve of power usage stays relatively constant. (i.e., You are paying for a lot more power per transaction at many points in the day than you should be.)

"With a more virtual model, you can match work done with power usage and so gain more value," said Bugnion.

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