Monday, August 29, 2011

vBlocks and FlexPods: is this Coke v Pepsi?

When Cisco came out with their UCS servers, I was impressed. They took the Nexus FCoE switches and modified them into a whole new thing, the UCS: with FCoE, service profiles and an expandable distributed blade server model. What really makes sense is the bottom line, you can save real money by deploying them over traditional blade or standalone servers. They save money with price per port and not having to buy additional switches for every 14-16 servers in a traditional blade enclosure. They simplify rapid deployment of servers. They allow moving workload to new blades without having to rebuild them.

Converged networks suddenly start to make sense with the Cisco UCS. You begin to see Cisco’s master plan in action. It’s not just FCoE in a switch, but a whole system built around best practices: FCoE, boot from SAN, etc. The biggest gain immediately obvious are the service profiles: VMware abstracts servers, service profiles are somewhere in between virtualizing the hardware the VMware is built upon. Firmware, UUIDs, WWPNs, MAC addresses, everything is abstracted. It took things one step farther than HP virtual connect.

So What Is This vBlock and FlexPod Business?

Now that you understand the idea of converged networks (Ethernet and FibreChanel) and you add UCS where convergence starts to really work, how do you make it bigger, and better? The problem with a new system, a problem much of us face, is that of qualification. We need to match HBAs and NICs (or CNAs in this case), servers, storage and network gear (SAN and IP), qualifying interoperability for each component. As a storage architect this is a part of my job, making sure each component works with every other component. Also, we need to take into account existing legacy equipment, the switches that we connect to making sure each and every part works. That’s where the vBlocks and FlexPods make sense.

For the vBlock, we have EMC storage coupled with Cisco Nexus (5500 and 1000v), UCS and MDS gear, all pre-integrated into one working system, end to end including VMware vSphere. It rolls in, connect a few network cables and start loading VMs. All of the equipment is pre-qualified to work together. Sold by VCE they offer a variety of models to meet different sized workloads utilizing VNX (300 series) and VMAX (700 series) storage. You can combine them with RecoverPoint or VPLEX for replication between sites and data protection.

For the FlexPod, NetApp, Cisco and VMware provide a pre-validated reference architecture. It couples NetApp with Cisco Nexus (5500 and 1000v), UCS and VMware vSphere (skipping MDS). There’s not fixed models but instead the ability to change a component in its class: a Nexus 5596 instead of a 5548, or a FAS3270 instead of a FAS3210. The idea behind a reference architecture is a little more flexibility in the design.

Both attempt to tackle the same goals: provide a fully tested, pre-qualified validated design. The EMC offers a tightly integrated container you connect to with controlled software releases, the NetApp has you roll your own within guidelines. Both are good solutions and I’ve designed and installed many of them. They work elegantly.

New Technology

They take the risk out of new technology. You’re often left wondering if the new hardware will work with your system. By integrating the network, compute, storage and virtualization layers into a validated supported design, you can load anything that supports VMware. All of that interoperability testing is done for you. All is supported by all three vendors. Finger pointing should be eliminated. That’s a real step forward.

Of course, the environment runs more than just VMware with other supported applications: some of which aren’t yet supported to be virtualized. And there are other pre-packaged solutions, such as leading ERP software and HyperV.

Do You Like Coke or Pepsi?

Both NetApp and EMC are almost feature parity these days and the gaps are closing between them. If you’re considering a storage purchase, a virtualization project, or a greenfield datacenter these solutions are worth taking a look at. Interoperability testing takes time. Purchasing all these components separately requires a lot of integration work, and extra dollars. Calling for support can involve questions around where the issue lies: VMware, Network or Storage. The advantage is all three venders in either solution work together because it’s tested by each of them.

Of course, you’ll also want to save money. That’s what convergence is all about. If you want to take a lot of the integration headache and finger pointing out of your solution then these may just be for you.

You’ll be left with one final question, the Coke or Pepsi one: would you like EMC or NetApp. Perhaps I could ask if you’d like fries with that.

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