Given the speed with which Australian organisations have virtualized their x86 server architecture, it’s not surprising many are investigating which other parts of the data centre are ripe for abstraction.
Infrastructure virtualization has moved well beyond the humble server to now take in storage and networking infrastructure, and thanks to the emergence of copy data tools such as Actifio, can even extend to the virtualization of an organisation’s data.
The concept of virtualizing everything is the foundation of the new hardware category of converged infrastructure, as embodied in VCE’s Vblock Systems, which bring together skills in virtualization, networking and storage from VMware, Cisco and EMC respectively into a single box.
The end state for virtualization is the software-defined data centre (SDDC), where all functions are managed at a software layer abstracted above the hardware, enabling complex functions to be deployed on commodity hardware.
While that vision is still some way from realisation, many organisations are working towards its partial fulfilment through the creation of hybrid cloud environments. These are intended to deliver the management and resource utilisation benefits of the cloud within an organisation’s own data centre.
But can another layer of software-based complexity really help win the decades-long war on infrastructure management costs? And are Australian organisations ready for software-defined everything?
One organisation that is willing to find out is Woolworths. As one of the 15 largest retailers in the world, Woolworths has massive revenues but operates on razor-thin margins. That presents a challenge for head of infrastructure, Matt Chamley, whose role requires balancing that restriction against other business needs.
“One of the things I’m challenged to do as the head of infrastructure is to support the business to have agility, and by that I mean flexibility and responsiveness to changing dynamics in the market,” he says.
“So how do I get infrastructure off the critical path? That’s the problem statement I’ve been working with.”
Hence his interest in virtualisation. Woolworths is progressively moving workloads off existing reference architectures and on to two Vblock boxes, which now run services such as the retailer’s Citrix desktop deployment.
Chamley says the benefit of Vblock is that he and his team can be very ‘hands off’ in terms of its management, as all changes and upgrades are managed by VCE.
“With engineered platforms and true converged infrastructure, such as the Vblock, it allows us to abstract our thinking away from the componentry,” Chamley says. “We know there is a capability and a pool of resource that we’ve bought, based on certain performance metrics, and that it is designed to work. So we can now start looking at how that service is being consumed.”
If Woolworths follows through on that vision, the creation of a single pool of resources could be far-reaching for Chamley’s team, as emphasis moves from managing the old model of ‘data centre, core, edge’ in favour of managing the services delivered.
“If I could manage workloads based on characteristics and automate the way those applications are defined and deployed, then all of a sudden I don’t need a team of infrastructure engineers anymore,” Chamley says.
“I need a team of infrastructure developers or architects or business consultants.
“Ultimately the service we provide the store is its ability to trade and its ability to recover from an outage of trade. And we are starting to define our services based on those business outcomes.”
That is the long-term vision, but Chamley is also getting short-term benefits in the form of reduced management overheads, particularly for systems updates.
This has been demonstrated during two major updates to the Vblocks installed under the Vblock Release Certification Matrix program.
“Twelve months ago, the service owners in that space wouldn’t sleep for days, people would be working weekends, and it would probably take four to six weeks to do after the testing and validation had been done in the lab,” Chamley says. “Today the service owners just go to sleep and the next morning it’s done.”
He is also achieving his goal of greater responsiveness to business needs, and can now create new platforms in days, rather than months.
That notion of responsiveness is also a driver for the ongoing virtualisation program at Westpac New Zealand.
Principal enterprise architect, Anton Aalders, says the bank will move into a new data centre in 2015 which will be almost entirely virtualised in terms of both computing and storage. Westpac NZ has also virtualised its data using Actifio, enabling faster staging of testing services. The next area of investigation is software-defined networking using Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure.
Aalders says the march to virtualisation was driven initially by the desire to move from legacy data centres without dragging across aging infrastructure. The new data centre will operate as a private cloud, with pattern-based deployment and automation.
“The business case was really ‘let’s not buy 50 boxes, lets buy three or four’,” he says. “And we wanted to get some agility, we wanted to have the capability to ratchet up, ratchet down, and resize.
“More and more people are starting to understand a cloud isn’t a managed service, it actually is something that is pretty agile and pretty flexible, and they are starting to want some of that. And the legacy IT guys are finding that if they can’t deliver it and don’t do it for their organisation, the organisation is going to do it around them.”
However, Aalders says the true benefit of virtualisation in terms of business agility is not always easy to measure.
“Sometimes it is hard to quantify the agility, especially when the technology largely can do it, but people can’t adopt the process to get the agility,” he comments. “We are driving that into Digital [the bank’s digital division], but ultimately we want that on bank side, so everyone becomes agile in their methodology.”
Next up: Services centricity