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Hardware standardization benefits cloud computing, virtualization

Hardware standardization can benefit cloud computing and virtualization, and it reduces management issues and hardware costs, but at the risk of vendor lock-in.

IT administrators at data centers with standardized server hardware typically have fewer headaches than those working in mishmash hardware environments, especially when it comes to virtualization and cloud computing. But standardization also leads to vendor lock-in.

When you standardize with one or two types of server hardware, you have the advantage of having common hardware parts, technical familiarity, common firmware images and upgrade techniques, easier management and special pricing from vendors.

"Many customers are very interested in simplifying, consolidating and standardizing their IT wherever possible. The focus is increasingly on the operational cost associated with maintaining a complex IT," said Matt Eastwood, the group vice president of enterprise platform research at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

San Francisco-based Virgin America Inc. airlines chief information officer Bill Maguire has standardized server hardware for years, because it keeps management costs – and aggravation – to a minimum.

Maguire, who also worked in the United States Postal Service data center for more than 20 years, said hardware standardization was the norm there as well.

"Each of these vendors have their own quirky differences. I standardized on Verari Systems servers here, and before that I standardized on Compaq because they made enterprise-class servers," Maguire said. "At the Postal Service, we used all IBM mainframes and in the server environment, we used Sun [Microsystems, Inc.] to run Unix, before the Linux days, and Intel-based systems. Even then, we tried to minimize the number of vendors we used so we could manage patches and upgrades easier, and keep the overhead of management to a minimum."

Another plus of standardizing on best-of-breed hardware is added negotiating power, especially for large data centers, Maguire said. "You can work out upgrade deals in your contract with a vendor, so you can get some sweeteners in the deal."

"Also, the bigger you are, the more effective [hardware standardization] is because you don't have to hire people with a wide range of skill sets," he said.

Virtualization, cloud computing drive hardware standardization
In addition to the obvious management and cost benefits, virtualization may also drive hardware standardization. For instance, live migration of virtual machines (VMs) works only across the same family of processors from the same vendor (Intel or AMD), so uniformity of CPUs for virtualization host platforms is also necessary.

Cloud computing is another technology that lends itself to hardware standardization, said Sam Charrington, the vice president of product management and marketing for St. Louis, Mo.-based Appistry Inc., which makes a grid application platform.

"Hardware standardization will have to happen in order for applications and data to move seamlessly from one cloud environment to the next," Charrington said during his session at the Linux World/Next Generation Data Center conference in San Francisco.

The downfall of standardizing is vendor lock in, but that's only a problem if the vendor-customer relationship is sour or the vendor isn't a stable company, Maguire said.

"Hardware standardization is a risk if you don't maintain a good relationship with your vendor," Maguire said. "Fostering a good vendor relationship is a win-win for business. I don't see a lot of downside to standardizing, unless you don't plan your roadmap and you don't foster a good relationship. You have to be smart about your decisions."

But standardization isn't always possible. "In some cases, Fortune 500 for example, the range of workloads that are being supported continues to expand and no single infrastructure will ever be capable of handling all the use cases," Eastwood said.

And OEMs have segmented the market into even small chunks and offering servers that are "optimized" for specific market segments, like branch offices, small and medium-sized businesses, enterprise data centers, virtualization and high-performance Computing, Eastwood said. "So even as users work to simplify, the OEM business models are getting more complex."

In fact, the Data Center Decisions 2008 Purchasing Intentions Survey of more than 600 management-level IT administrators shows that 36% of users said they do not have a standard hardware platform for VMs.

Because complete hardware standardization isn't the philosophy of every data center, other standards, like Open Virtualization Format (OVF), are being developed to standardize the means to packaging and distributing VMs across heterogeneous platforms. Charrington likened the OVF standard to MP3 formatting, which allowed audio to be transmitted between different vendor sound devices.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

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