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Virtualization and the Second Death of the 'White Box'

Why, when it comes to virtualization, do-it-yourself design is often a bad thing.

Virtualization took the IT industry by storm just a few years ago. Promising more efficient uses of expensive computing hardware, virtualization's first ROI came in the form of space, power and cooling reductions for everyone.

Yet virtualization's rapid rise from bleeding-edge to just-the-way-you-do-things came with its own baggage. "You must measure performance, using solutions that give you actionable information," I've written in the past. At other times, I've said, "Creating your own private cloud requires quantifying the resources you have in comparison with the resources you need."

But all of those lofty statements belie virtualization's current and arguably most important problem: Our view of hardware hasn't evolved.

Yes, our hardware has gotten faster, and its processors have new virtualization-friendly instruction sets. But the central problem inside most of our existing virtual environments is that we still treat hardware as individual pieces of a greater whole.

Remember the "white boxes" of not that many years ago? It hasn't been that long since companies like HP, Dell, IBM, Hitachi and others convinced us that their engineers were smarter than us when it came to designing servers.

I remember those days. Back then, buying a server was more like piecing together a set of parts -- a motherboard here, some processors and RAM there, then an educated guess on storage, usually limited by the number of slots inside the server.

Those white boxes were admittedly fun to build -- don't get me wrong. But, building them quickly became a maligned practice once our hardware companies began applying real engineering to server design.

It's exactly that cusp of time between thinking we were smarter and recognizing that we weren't that we've once again reached inside today's virtual infrastructures. Modularized architectures that incorporate the best features of blade technologies with the benefits of node-oriented SAN storage and networking are now available.

These architectures enable snapping a quantifiable amount of processing, disk space and networking into your virtual environment. And they're creating reality out of the private cloud "vaporware" we all chuckled at not that many months ago.

In essence, using today's hardware, we don't need to build virtualization out of pieces and parts. Rather than white-boxing a virtual environment, we can buy the GHz of processing, GB of RAM and disk, and GB of networking as a package all from the same vendor.

This is the promised power of virtualization: Complete and total abstraction of physical resources across every piece of hardware. And it's becoming reality as we once again kill off that nasty practice of building our own white boxes.

Oh, yes, many IT professionals will guffaw at the notion of abdicating their design to some third party. We all know that third parties, in the end, want to sell you a product. But the datacenter of the future no longer really cares about design -- nor should the business that purchases it. That business instead cares about delivering applications and data to its users. It accomplishes that goal through some numerical assignment of memory, processing, networking and storage. All are numbers on a management screen that tie back to a pool of resources that we shouldn't have to care about much anymore.

So, how are we doing? We're not there yet, but we're getting really, really close. As you can imagine, rare is the business that will throw away its hard-won virtualization investment simply to move to some modular infrastructure. But computing hardware is evolving to the point where we only need to plug in a few cables and let our software management tools take care of the rest.

It's high time we begin evolving our notion of how hardware creates a business datacenter.

About the Author

Greg Shields is a senior partner and principal technologist with Concentrated Technology. He also serves as a contributing editor and columnist for TechNet Magazine and Redmond magazine, and is a highly sought-after and top-ranked speaker for live and recorded events. Greg can be found at numerous IT conferences such as TechEd, MMS and VMworld, among others, and has served as conference chair for 1105 Media’s TechMentor Conference since 2005. Greg has been a multiple recipient of both the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and VMware vExpert award.

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