Data center complexity and management have been growing significantly for many years. Operations and systems management personnel are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with demands for equipment and ensure what they have on the data center floor is operating reliably. Acquiring and installing new equipment often takes from weeks to months of effort when users need additional capacity or new systems. This problem is particularly vexing in light of the worldwide economic downturn and challenge for Information Technology (IT) personnel to “do more with less.”
The specialization of data center components and wide breadth of offerings that data center personnel have to select from has added significantly to the complexity of most data centers. Component specialization has improved systems performance and throughput at the price of complexity, integration requirements, compatibility issues, increased personnel training requirements, difficulty in keeping maintenance current, and other such related issues.
Some IT personnel have coined the term “data center sprawl” in an attempt to communicate the negative aspects of this specialization of components and expansion of individual special purpose components in the data center — along with the increase in the number of systems required to run their businesses. However, the latest trend in IT equipment, appliances, is moving in the opposite direction to reduce some of this complexity in special situations. This simplicity has made appliances the latest “hot trend” in computer equipment.
Appliances simplify certain individual data center needs but are so focused on doing specific things very well that they do not address many of the problems current data centers are facing in terms of the overall data center sprawl. A significant part of the problem with sprawl is that specialized pieces of equipment, often termed “best of breed,” are required to address individual functional requirements and require individual purchase, installation, configuration, training, and maintenance. For servers this specialized equipment varies from network, to storage, to memory expansion equipment that is separate and in addition to the actual CPU. Specialization of equipment that previously was a very good thing for addressing performance and throughput has become a significant problem simply because of the sheer number of individual pieces of equipment. What previously had been manageable because of the limited number of servers being used has now become unmanageable because of the sheer number and variety of pieces of equipment that businesses are now using.
Can server manufacturers learn from the personal computer industry about simplification?
Years ago the personal computer industry faced a similar challenge in marketing and selling personal computers to individual consumers. At first, personal computer companies offered individual components that some consumers were willing to buy separately and assemble into a working computer. Maybe this is where the term “computer geek” originated because there were not too many consumers who were willing to take on this assembling task in order to have a personal computer! The companies learned quickly that to sell computers to a larger consumer audience they needed to simplify the acquisition and setup of these personal computers. It appears to have worked well because a lot of personal computers have and are being sold to a wide variety of consumers.
The companies making and selling personal computers learned that they needed to develop standard configurations that incorporated excellent components and service to meet the needs of various consumer groups. These components, pre-assembled in the personal computer, included both software and hardware that provided the consumer with a fully functional device. Consumers wanted a device that they could start up and use – nearly immediately. At least the non-computer geek consumers wanted this. Some geeks still want to purchase individual components and assemble them themselves. So goes the old saying – “to each his own.”
Personal computer purchasers have to provide some initial configuration information and in most cases select additional system and application software to install from what is provided on the computer by the personal computer manufacturer. For example, virus and office automation software is often available on the equipment but is not fully installed. Installation though is a simple process and the purchaser can run through it quickly and easily to have a fully functional and working machine. In some cases, the licenses for these additional products are included with the purchase of the machine, in other cases additional purchase of the software is required.
Some of the great things with this model of purchasing a personal computer are that the manufactures have generally developed a list of “standardized” equipment that is available for purchase that have assembled hardware and software together into a usable system. This standardized equipment generally varies in price, of course, but appeals to various user groups. The range of consumers is vast. Some consumers want general purpose equipment that is used for fairly minimal tasks around their homes and surfing the Internet; other consumers want equipment that is very sophisticated for business power users or gamers who need high performance with the best and fastest components that are currently available. As new technology is available, the manufacturers work to incorporate it into their product offerings because it makes their equipment have more appeal in the marketplace. For example solid state disk is being incorporated into many new personal computers because consumers want better capacity and performance from their equipment.
So what can server manufacturers learn from personal computer manufacturers?
Well, first and foremost that simplification and standardization lead to increased sales and use of personal computers by consumers. Second, that standardization in offering several alternative models addresses the various ways that consumers want to use their products. Some users want economical configurations with reasonable performance and capacity; others want the highest performing systems possible. And third, that simplification across hardware and software, in offering easy installation and use along with simplified maintenance, can be a very good thing.
Granted, the personal computer industry hasn’t solved all the worlds’ ills and there are many things manufacturers can do to make their products better. Overall though, personal computer manufactures build products that are easy to get started using, are reliable, and are reasonably simple to maintain. Is this something server manufacturers could accomplish without making equipment appliances focused on very limited specific tasks?
Stay tuned for my next blog post about expert integrated systems in the Server marketplace.