HISTORY OF CI, Part 1: VBlock (2009 – 2011)

vxblock data center

As members of the CONVERGED User Group, you’re likely well-versed in the many technical and business benefits of converged infrastructure (CI) and hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI)—you work with it every day. Last year, CI hit its 10-year milestone, and some of our members have been around CI for the whole time, helping to transform their IT shops as well as drive the growth of CI and HCI; other members may have only recently dipped their toes in the CI/HCI waters.

The CONVERGED User Group Board of Directors thought it might be helpful to take a look back over the past decade to see how CI has evolved. For some this may be a brief glimpse down memory lane, for others this may help explain how we got to where we are, and perhaps provide insight into where we are (should be) going. For all, we hope this blog series is informative and fun. We welcome your thoughts/remembrances!

This first blog in the series looks back to the 2009-2011 timeframe – the early years of CI – and the internal-culture challenge early adopters faced as their IT leadership sought to realize the promise of CI in their organizations.

If you will, think back to 2009. The DJIA spent most of the year below 10,000, Amazon stock was in the 80s, AWS was just three years old, and Facebook was three years until it would announce its IPO. The iPhone was in its second year, and VMware had entered its second decade and just released ESXi 4.0 and vSphere. Oh, and Cisco, the networking behemoth, had just introduced its Unified Compute System, aka, Cisco UCS. Wow! That seems more like eons than a decade ago.

Many IT shops at this time were starting to adopt virtualization widely – “P to V” was “the new black,” or, anachronistically, the “new cloud.” However beneficial to operations this shift to virtualization was, it also added a new layer of complexity to the standard, 3-tier, Compute, Network, Storage, siloed data center operations model.

VMware and Virtualization

Prior to the emergence of CI, VMware introduced the ability to virtualize the compute layer. It may be commonplace now, but in 2009, virtualizing X-86 processors was transformational. Pre-VMware, the ability to run multiple non-competing applications on a single processor, thus achieving higher utilization rates and shifting capacity where and when it’s needed to scale with processing requirements, was limited to IBM mainframes – certainly not Intel-based machines. With VMware, companies could exploit virtualization at the compute layer and begin exploring the subsequent impact to their storage and networking needs.

Vblock – VCE’s ‘Data Center in a Box’

2019 marked the 10th anniversary of Converged Infrastructure, a data center category created by VCE. With Vblock, VCE (then Acadia) introduced the concept of converged infrastructure (CI) as an alternative, all-in-one solution to the traditional 3-tiered architecture.

Vblock represented a “data center in a box” – the first step toward resolving three critical challenges inherent in the 3-tier model:

  • Complexity – Each tier in the 3-tier model is managed by its own set of dedicated specialty resources. These specialized teams are generally siloed and their decision-making insular. Decisions and actions are often made without a holistic understanding of the potential impact on the full system, i.e., the data center.
  • Performance constraints– e.g., the network can become a bottleneck between applications residing on a server and the data associated with those applications at the storage level.
  • Resource efficiency – Enterprises using a 3-tier architecture have to build data center capacity great enough to meet the highest level of demand, which may occur seasonally or even be associated with a single-day event. Day-to-day operations may require only a fraction of that maximum utilization rate as the organization continues to pay for a large volume of unused capacity.

Vblock was a revolutionary concept, providing organizations with a pre-architected, pre-engineered, pre-configured, self-contained, highly-available and reliable enterprise-grade infrastructure built, supported and maintained by a single provider. It facilitated the compute, network and storage components to work in harmony, freeing IT teams from the daily efforts to “keep the lights on”.  Moreover, VCE’s Release Certification Matrix (RCM) rigorously examined and regression tested all manner of network, compute, storage, and virtualization patches and software releases to ensure interoperability. RCM ensured and continues to ensure that systems remained highly available during patching and improved risk management.  Enterprising IT teams took advantage of the new cycles available and looked to implement innovation into their operations and the business.

A Barrier to Acceptance – The Cultural Challenge

As is typical of IT organizations pioneering innovation, the early adopters of CI and virtualization faced internal resistance. Where IT transformation leaders and visionaries saw the strategic, operational and financial advantage, many established infrastructure teams saw disruption, an unwelcome challenge to the status quo and a threat to their jobs.

Some on those teams were comfortable working in their Compute, Network or Storage silos free from a dependence on the other silos. “To them, CI was an internal global attack. It was an attack from the infrastructure perspective because now the infrastructure would be architected like a mainframe, one single system,” says Ignacio Borrero, Technical Marketing Engineer, CI & HCI for Dell Technologies. “They viewed VMware in the same way. The storage guy would now likely have a virtualization administrator managing the instruments, and the network guys didn’t want the virtualization guy making decisions about the network.”

Suddenly, two factors – CI and virtualization – were putting pressure on people living very comfortably in their own spaces. “Some of those people instantly saw the benefits and reoriented themselves. They understood that they would be able to advance their careers and add higher-level value to their organization in a more automated and efficient CI environment. Others felt at risk; they saw their livelihood going away,” Borrero says.

It’s accurate to say that the 2009-2011 time period could be characterized by this culture-gap between visionaries who understood where the industry was heading and those in the trenches who were change-averse. Without a culture change, early adopters would never realize the benefits of a virtualization-based data center or CI.  Even ten years later those same challenges remain eerily similar.  Though virtualization of compute is widely adopted today, virtualized storage, virtualized networking, CI, and now Hyperconverged Infrastructure (HCI) continue to face cultural transformation challenges.

Even as the global CI market is predicted to grow by USD 25.15 billion during the 2020-2023 time period, according to Technavio, the global technology research and advisory company, a large percentage of the CI/HCI market remains untapped.

“Human beings are reluctant to change regardless of how minor that change might be, so it’s certainly understandable for organizations to find it difficult to introduce change to complex data center infrastructure,” Borrero says. “They’re asking if the benefits are worth the effort. They don’t want to take risks, and prefer to move incrementally. Especially in those early years, people I talked to would express interest, but they wanted to wait a year or more to see if CI was real. Only then would they feel comfortable advocating it internally.”

In the second blog in this series, we will examine the 2011-2016 timeframe—the VCE days, Pre-Dell acquisition.

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