Software-Defined Questions

Hardware is solid. We can see it and touch it and feel comfortable knowing what it does, how it works and where it is. Software, not so much. Software lives someplace but we don’t necessarily know where. Unlike hardware we may not even know it’s present – or missing. So, the idea of software defining data centers, networks and storage may be a bit unsettling. Marc Andreessen’s comment that “software is eating the world” might call up images of Godzilla and T Rex. Nicholas Carr asserts, “automation can erode… expertise”. It separates us from fully understanding how things work. He argues that, with all its benefits, software and automation can also bring essential dangers that fewer of us will know how the world really works. Sounds frightening. But isn’t it already true?

Practically speaking, software runs modern business. It automates our data centers, our applications, our networks, servers and storage. Virtualization has delivered huge benefits and also greatly increased software dependence. So, what is different about the next phase – a software defined data center (SDDC) – and is it a good thing or not? If banishing complexity is the objective, then it is certainly a good thing. But the next question is: “Are we ready yet?”

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”

                                                                                                                 — Niccolo Machiavelli
The Prince (1532)

 

Take the example of one major OEM that recently touted their “fully integrated software defined data center solution”. They listed seventeen different hardware and software elements that are part of the integration package (professional services extra). The pieces cover management, orchestration, networking, storage, data protection, deployment with various hardware and platform-as-a-service components. Simplicity is clearly not in the mix here. This is more like an assembly of existing technology pieces scotch-taped together and made to look like something designed and built from scratch. Probably not the best example of things to come. But they will beat their chests and say they are among the first. It’ll be interesting to see if they actually sell any.

software_abstractAs we hear “software defined” thrown at every IT element, particularly networking and storage, a practical bit of skepticism is probably a good thing. And, while change can be unsettling it doesn’t mean it won’t eventually come to pass. Virtualization of compute took some time, but now it’s core data center architecture. It’s not software-defined scary. It’s a norm. It’s familiar. It’s mature.

Other developments, such as software-defined storage, are still early stages and will also demand change. While they’re building slowly, they promise benefits ranging from programmability to entirely external software control of policies, service levels and instant provisioning. New functionality moves from hardware to software, making changes and updates easier. Still, we need to understand this in the context of how we currently think about data storage and what we must do differently.

To understand the larger scope and practicality of a fully software-defined data center we need to move beyond the marketing buzz. What are realistic expectations for capabilities and timing?

Two answers.

First, through advanced integration with VMware, Actifio has made major strides in support of SDDC. These include linking through vCenter APIs, VMware APIs for Data Protection and Virtual Volumes (VVol), Change Block Tracking and VMware vSAN. Actifio also provides a plugin that enables management of virtualized copy data from VMware’s management platforms. All of this is just a start at helping customers do more with less. That include advances in heterogeneous operations, service automation and, most critically, “Application Centricity.”

The second answer comes from Fortune’s citation of a research report projecting a SDDC marketplace in 2020 exceeding $77 billion. That could lag or accelerate according to the demonstrated promise and realities of SDDC benefits, starting with the essential benefits of applications that drive revenue and customer satisfaction.

We can’t let the scary software monsters or threats of losing control prevent us from making progress. We can’t rush into it blind either. We just need to be very meticulous in examining the proof as we decide how much change to accept.

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