Monday, December 8, 2008

'Real-time infrastructure': where do you start?

I saw a lot of coverage last week on Tom Bittman's keynote at the Gartner Data Center Conference in Vegas about how IT infrastructure is going to evolve (summary: it's looking very cloud-like). Only a few of the articles (like Derrick Harris' blog) picked up some of the angles Donna Scott presented the next day to another packed room -- more of an "OK, I'm interested, now how do I get started?" session about creating a real-time infrastructure. Given all the hype about how companies should be creating next-generation architectures and the like, I thought her focus on what's being done and what could be done today was worthy of some highlights.

First off, Donna Scott gave credit where credit was due: a big driver toward real-time infrastructure (RTI) has been (and will continue to be) virtualization. It's the first step out of the moving airplane, hopefully with the parachute on. Virtualization allows IT operations to see that it's possible to de-couple hardware and software, to do things differently, and to get seriously beneficial results.

Cost wasn't the main driver for these initial steps toward a real-time infrastructure, according to the in-room poll that Donna took. Thirty-five percent said the reason was agility instead. But it's not yet full-steam ahead to get that agility benefit, either. "There's no such thing as data-center-wide RTI," Scott said. "It only exists in pockets at this point."

So what's holding RTI up?

The two highest results from her polling told a tale that we here at Cassatt have heard before: it's not the technology that's the problem. Management process maturity (29%) and organizational/cultural barriers (28%) were holding organizations back from adopting RTI instead. In fact, in Scott's poll "unproven technology" was the reason holding back only 10% of the audience. To put this in context from our own experience, Cassatt's largest customers have needed the most assistance with handling internal politics, organizational objections, and modifications to the way they are managing their IT operations as they move through an implementation. Some of this assistance comes from us, but a lot of the broader change-management expertise can come from the partners we work with. Donna summed it up nicely: "Don't ignore the people and cultural issues."

Donna's polling also found that organizations in the room had started server virtualization projects as their initial foray into creating a real-time infrastructure (56% chose this option). Makes sense. Three other areas that got some interest as RTI starting points:

1. Disaster recovery -- sharing and re-configuration (11%)
2. Loosely coupled server high-availability -- replacement of failed nodes (7%)
3. Dynamic capacity expansion-- typically for specific applications (7%)

Scott pointed to a way to get the "best of both worlds" and begin making steps toward RTI: combine server virtualization and a dynamic resource broker (what she called a "service governor"). In fact, her assumption is that "there will be many service governors in your organization," often including specialized ones that know specific types of environments very well.

So where do you start?

Donna went on to provide one of the first categorizations of service governors that's been provided to date. Her slide listed application-centric service governors, infrastructure-centric service governors, and other flavors as well. Who's providing them? Vendors like IBM, CA, DataSynapse, VMware, and, yes, Cassatt, too. She put us in a couple of categories, in fact.

"All vendors have something to offer," Scott said, but each has its own perspective on how to deliver value for customers. (Cassatt's take, by the way, is to be as vendor-neutral as possible, while providing dynamic control over the broadest set of hardware, software, and virtualization as we can.) "Most of the innovation in this space," Scott said, "is happening with the smaller suppliers."

She wrapped up her comments with a bit of a warning and a challenge: some organizations are eager to give real-time infrastructure a shot (and these are obviously the type that are Cassatt customers), figuring that the resulting rewards will easily outstrip the risks.

"RTI is not for the faint of heart," said Scott. "This is really cutting-edge stuff, so you could be breaking new ground."

I suppose it goes without saying, but if you're interested in someone to help break that new ground with you, I think we could recommend that someone.

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