IT: Appliance sprawl – Where is the concern?

Over the past few years you have seen an increasing drumbeat in the IT community to server consolidation through Virtualization with all the trumpeted promises of cheaper, greener, more flexible customer focused data centers with never a wasted CPU cycle. It is a siren song to all IT personnel and quite frankly it actually looks like it delivers on a great many of the promises.

Interestingly enough, while reduced CPU wastage, increased flexibility, fewer vendors are all being trumpeted for servers there continues to be little thought provided to purchasing hardware appliances willy-nilly. Hardware appliances started out as specialized devices built or configured in a certain way to maximize performance – A SAN device is a good example, you might want high speed dual port Ethernet and a huge disk capacity with very little requirement for a beefy CPU or memory. These make sense to be appliances. Increasingly however an appliance is a standard Dell or rack mounted rack mounted system with an application installed on it, usually on a special Linux distribution. The advantages to the appliance vendor are many and obvious — a single configuration to test, increased customer lockin, and a tidy up sell potential as the customer finds their event volume growing. From the customer perspective it suffers all the downsides that IT has been trying to get away from – specialized hardware that cannot be re-purposed, more, locked-in hardware vendors, excess capacity or not enough, wasted power from all the appliances running, the list goes on and on and contains all the very things that have caused the move to virtualization. And the major benefit for appliances? Easy to install seems to be the major one. So to provision a new machine, install software might take an hour or so – the end-user is saving that and the downstream cost of maintaining a different machine type eats that up in short order.

Shortsighted IT managers still manage to believe that, even as they move aggressively to consolidate Servers, it is still permissible to buy an appliance even if it is nothing but a thinly veiled Dell or HP Server. This appliance sprawl represents the next clean-up job for IT managers, or will simply eat all the savings they have realized in server consolidation. Instead of 500 servers you have 1 server and 1000 hardware appliances – what have you really achieved? You have replaced relationships with multiple hardware vendors with multiple appliance vendors and worse when a server blew-up at least it was all Windows/Intel configurations so in general so you could keep the applications up and running. Good luck doing that with a proprietary appliance. This duality in IT organizations reminds me somewhat of people that go to the salad bar and load up on the cheese, nuts, bacon bits and marinated vegetables, then act vaguely surprised when the salad bar regimen has no positive effect.

-Steve Lafferty