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Software-defined datacentres demystified

As datacentre managers increasingly rely on software and automation, what can a software-defined datacentre bring to the enterprise?

The term software-defined datacentre (SDDC) rose to prominence this year during annual virtualisation conference VMworld 2012 with VMware touting it as the next best thing in IT.

A software-defined datacentre is an IT facility where the elements of the infrastructure -- networking, storage, CPU and security -- are virtualised and delivered as a service. The provisioning and operation of the entire infrastructure is entirely automated by software.

"It can bring a high degree of agility and flexibility to the infrastructure," says Tony Lock, analyst at Freeform Dynamics. "But businesses may not be ready for such a transformation."

In his keynote at VMworld Europe 2012, VMware chief executive Pat Gelsinger described today's approach to the datacentre as "a museum of IT", comprising legacy hardware and mainframes. "We need to make all aspects of infrastructure flexible," said Gelsinger.

The software-defined datacentre was among the hot topics at Storage and Networking World (SNW) Europe 2012 in October. According to Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), the future needs more automation. "To put it frankly, you can't make money with hardware," a spokesman for HDS added.

Rob Jenkins, European director for VMware advisory services, claims that building largescale datacentres from standard high-volume servers was inefficient and complex, both for cloud service providers and large enterprises.

"Besides, it is not very reliable, which is why SDDC is the future," Jenkins says. The software-defined approach has driven people to think differently about how we build networks (wide-area networks and network fabrics in the datacentre), bind them with applications and manage them, says Nicolas Fischbach, director of network and IT platform strategy and architecture at Colt.

VMware's software-defined datacentre strategy

A big part of VMware's SDDC strategy is its revised vCloud Suite -- unveiled at VMworld -- which includes technologies to provide datacentre managers with software-defined computing capabilities, Software-defined storage and networking elements as well as management and cloud components.

VMware's strategy for a fully automated datacentre can be traced back to July when it bought networking company Nicira for more than $1bn. Nicira was a software-defined networking supplier offering multi-hypervisor network infrastructure, enabling users to run the network from a software perspective and remove the control from the hardware elements.

SDDCs establish a single toolkit encompassing hybrid clouds
Naser AliEaton Electrical Group

Software-defined networking (SDN) is an approach to networking in which control is decoupled from hardware and given to a software application called a controller.
Adding Nicira is complementary to VMware's SDDC strategy, says independent IT consultant Enrico Signoretti.

VMware is not alone in cashing in on softwaredefined network and software-defined storage to power an SDDC. Citrix acquired NetScaler with similar intentions and suppliers such as Xsigo and Oracle are developing automation capabilities in their services to power an SDDC, Signoretti says.

"I feel Microsoft will announce something very soon around SDDC," Signoretti adds.

Software-defined datacentres and cloud computing

As software becomes sophisticated, building in more management capabilities, the role of hardware in a cloud-like datacentre is shrinking. Storage products are already software-backed.

The same is true of networking. Many networking products have a software layer, says Andrew Mauro, a virtualisation expert and VMware User Group (VMU G) Italy's co-founder and board member.

"But what's interesting about VMware's SDDC proposition is that it will bring all the software pieces together into your infrastructure," Mauro says. "Two years ago, integrating storage, network and security products was very difficult, but today, a software-defined datacentre could make that a reality," he says. VMware's vCloud Suite brings together what customers need to build, operate and manage a cloud infrastructure -- virtualisation, automation, policy-based provisioning, disaster recovery, and applications and operations management -- says Mauro.

So is SDDC another name for private cloud?

"SDDCs go beyond traditional abstraction above core hardware assets and establish a single toolkit that also encompasses hybrid clouds," says Naser Ali, segment manager of datacentres at Eaton Electrical Group.

Potentially, an SDDC implementation could allow servers and other hardware to be shut down or run at lower power levels, which has implications for energy use, according to Ali. Some experts see SDDC as a more secure option to cloud. "SDDCs provide organisations with their own private cloud, allowing them to have far more control over hosted data," says Tim Chambers, chief technology officer and co-founder of Data City Exchange. When data is stored in an SDDC, organisations can have on-demand access, rather than requesting the cloud provider for permission.

"This is far more flexible and it means enterprises have the power to access their data when they need it," adds Chambers. It also means an organisation can decide the level of security rather than relying on the security put in place by a cloud hosting provider.

Are enterprises SDDC-ready?

"More often than not, CIOs are looking for an efficient, robust business function to be delivered. However, far too often, they move first, and think later, to the detriment of process delivery and more critically, the user experience," says Ali.

Architecting software-defined environments implies rethinking IT processes such as automation, orchestration, metering and billing, and executing on operating model step changes (such as service delivery, service activation and service assurance).

Upskilling for SDDC is only one aspect of the evolution needed to deliver on the promise of applying flexibility to networks and datacentres, says Colt's Fischbach. It starts with the understanding of customer requirements and how to translate them into a system and a commercial and technical service wrap. Executives need experience across networks, systems and applications to operate SDDC and there cannot be single skills/operations teams silos, says Fischbach.

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But some see SDDC as beyond the usual "service" or "dynamic" level of the datacentre maturity models, at a "visionary level". This puts SDDC on the post-cloud leading edge for many CIOs and could take up to 10 years before we see it hit the mainstream, says Ali.

And as enterprises continue using legacy products such as mainframes, SDDC will co-exist with old datacentres for a very long time, adds Signoretti. But even for CIOs who want to adopt newer IT models such as SDDC, the road is not easy. "Licensing is one of the biggest challenges of moving to an infrastructure heavily driven by software," says Signoretti. "Even in today's highly virtualised world, we follow an archaic software licensing model. If we are talking about a software-defined facility, we need better, efficient and user-friendly licensing models," he says. In addition, there are challenges around storage and networking components -- two of the biggest elements of SDDC. But storage and networking virtualisation are not at the same maturity level as server virtualisation.

"There are standards on top of Openflow for SDN, but nothing SDDC-centric is fully mature, meaning you cannot move an SDDC to a different toolkit," says Ali, warning users of supplier lock-in.

Enterprises must be mindful of other challenges too. Legacy applications could fail if they are simply dropped in without taking into account latency, suitability to distributed architecture and fault tolerance at application level.

Besides, none of the basics of physics or economics will ever go away. "Energy will still be finite, marginally discontinuous in supply and increasingly expensive, and you do not want to launch a new SDDC and trip a circuit breaker," says Ali.

The less standardised (and hence less private cloud-friendly) the customer's requirement and the faster the change, the more adoptive the customer will be. "In simple terms, if distributed, varied technology and rapid change are a big part of generating revenue, you'll be ready sooner," says Ali.

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