GestaltIT, Networking, Stack, Storage, Virtualization

My take on the stack wars

As some of you might have read, the stack wars have started. One of the bigger coalitions announced in November 2009 was that between VMware, Cisco and EMC, aptly named VCE. Hitachi Data Systems announced something similar and partnered up with Microsoft, but left everyone puzzled about the partner that will be providing the networking technology in it’s stack. Companies like IBM have been able to provide customers with a complete solution stack for some time now, and IBM will be sure to tell it’s customers that they did so and offered the management tools in form of anything branded Tivoli. To me, IBM’s main weakness is not so much the stack that they offer, as the sheer number of solutions and the lack of one tool to manage it all, let alone getting an overview of all possible combinations.

So, what is this thing called the stack?

Actually the stack is just that, a stack. A stack of what you say? A stack of solutions, bound together by one or more management tools, offered to you as a happy meal that allows you to run the desired workloads on this stack. Or to put things more simply and quote from the Gestalt IT stack wars post:

  • Standard hardware configurations are specified for ease of purchasing and support
  • The hardware stack includes blade servers, integrated I/O technology, Ethernet networking for connectivity, and SAN or NAS storage
  • Unifying software is included to manage the hardware components in one interface
  • A joint services organization is available to help in selection, architecture, and deployment
  • Higher-level software, from the virtualization hypervisor through application platforms, will be included as well

Until now, we have usually seen a standardized form of hardware, including storage and connectivity. Vendors mix that up with one or multiple management tools and tend to target some form of virtualization. Finally a service offering is included to allow the customer to get service and support from one source.

This strategy has it’s advantages.

Compatibility is one of my favorite ones. You no longer need to work trough compatibility guides that are 1400 pages long and will burn you for installing a firmware version that was just one digit off and is now no longer supported in combination with one of your favorite storage arrays. You no longer have to juggle different release notes from your business warehouse provider, your hardware provider, your storage and network provider, your operating system and tomorrow’s weather forecast. Trying to find the lowest common denominator through all of this is still something magical. It’s actually a form of dark magic that usually means working long hours to find out if your configuration is even supported by all the vendors you are dealing with.

This is no longer the case with these stacks. Usually they are purpose or workload built and you have one central source where you get your support from. This source will tell you that you need at least firmware version X.Y on these parts to be eligible for support and you are pretty much set after that. And because you are working with a federated solution and received management tools for the entire stack, your admins can pretty much manage everything from this one console or GUI and be done with it. Or, if you don’t want to that you can use the service offering and have it done for you.

So far so good, right?

Yes, but things get more complicated from here on. For one there is one major problem, and that is flexibility. One of the bigger concerns came up during the Gestalt IT tech field day vBlock session at Cisco. With the vBlock, I have a fixed configuration and it will run smoothly and within certain performance boundaries as long as I stick to the specifications. In the case of a vBlock this was a quite obvious example, where if I add more RAM to a server blade then is specified, I no longer have a vBlock and basically no longer have those advantages previously stated.

Solution stacks force me to think about the future. I might be a Oracle shop now as far as my database goes. And Oracle will run fine on newly purchased stack. But what if I want to switch to Microsoft SQL Server in 3 years, because Mr. Ellison decided that he needs a new yacht and I no longer want to use Oracle? Is my stack also certified to run a different SQL server or am I no longer within my stack boundaries and lost my single service source or the guaranteed workload it could hold?

What about updates for features that are important to me as a single customer? Or what about the fact that these solution stacks work great for new landscapes, or in a highly homogeneous environment? But what about those other Cisco switches that I would love to manage from the tools that are offered within my vBlock, but are outside of the vBlock scope, even if they are the same models?

What about something simple as a “stack lock-in”? I don’t really have a vendor lock-in since only very few companies have the option of offering everything first hand. Microsoft doesn’t make server blades, Cisco doesn’t make SAN storage and that list goes on and on. But with my choice of stack, I am now locked in to a set of vendors, and I certainly have some tools to migrate in to that stack, but migrating out is an entirely different story.

The trend is the stack, it’s as simple as that. But for how long?

We can see the trend clearly. Every vendor seems to be working on a stack offering. I’m still missing Fujitsu as a big hardware vendor in this area, but I am absolutely certain we will see something coming from them. Smaller companies will probably offer part of their portfolio under some sort of OEM license or perhaps features will just be re-branded. And if they are successful enough, they will most likely be swallowed by the bigger vendors at some point.

But as with all in the IT, this is just a trend. Anyone who has been in the business longer than me can probably confirm this. We’ve seen a start with centralized systems, then moving towards a de-centralized environment. Now we are on the move again, centralizing everything.

I’m actually much more interested to see how long this trend will continue. I’m am certain that we will be seeing some more companies offer a complete solution stack, or joining in coalitions to offer said stack. I still think that Oracle was one of the first that pointed in this direction, but they were not the first to offer the complete stack.

So, how do you think this is going to continue? Do you agree with us? What companies do you think are likely to be swallowed, or will we see more coalitions from smaller companies? What are your takes on the advantages and disadvantages?

I’m curious to hear your take on this so let me know. I’m looking forward to what you have to say!

Certification

The thing about certifications and flowers

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A discussion on Twitter got me thinking about certifications.

The discussion itself wasn’t that new, but this was at least the second time I’ve seen the subject pop up, and more interestingly it were the same people talking about the same subject.

Things kicked off with a tweet from StorageMonkeys asking the following:

“Just curious… why would anyone get a storage certification when employers really don’t care about them?”

storagebod and CXI responded and gave various opinions on the pro and contra of being certified.

This whole discussion probably boils down to two main questions, namely:

  • Will a certification add value for me?
  • Is a certification a proof or acknowledgment of my capabilities?
  • Now, to answer those questions, we need to put some things in perspective. I managed to become a certified ISO 9001:2000 lead auditor some years back. For those who are not familiar with this standard, it’s about quality management.

    Now, let’s use the example of a shipping and forwarding company that transports fresh flowers from Russia to China by truck. Said company is looking to get an ISO 9001:2000 certification.
    That’s not that big of a problem.

    So, let’s take it one step further and say that this company actually ships these flowers in three months in a heated truck. The flowers probably won’t survive the trip you say. But can they still get or keep their certification?

    Yep, no problem at all. As long as they meet the requirements described in the standard and keep to their quality management procedures they will have no problem getting certified. It doesn’t mean that business will be booming, or that they deliver a quality product or service. It just says that they keep certain standards for the way they work, and that they try to improve on those defined standards.

    It’s the same thing for certifications in general, or for IT certifications that were discussed in the start of this blog post. So, to come back to my two basic questions:

    Will a certification add value for me?

    Let’s not be shy here. It can! But your mileage will vary.
    For one, your certifications mainly show that you are able to learn the answer to some questions, and you are smart enough to click on some buttons in a test. Some test will actually need you to have had some hands on. For example the Microsoft tests changed a lot from the NT4 age to the Windows 2000 or Windows 2003 era. The new tests require a lot more hands on experience, and the chances that you are able to pass the test by just studying the correct answers has decreased quite a bit.

    But that does not mean that all certifications will require hands on. There are plenty of institutes out there that will have you take a test, and they will only show you that you are able to memorize facts. And usually memorizing facts only works for a while. Talk about the same things again in three months and most of it, if not even all of it, will be long gone.

    Then there’s the fact that most certifications will only be valid for a certain amount of time. Technology evolves and things change. It’s good that way, but a certification doesn’t always have an expiration date and a certification will not show if people actually updated their knowledge to reflect those changes. Stuff you learned five years back might not be what you need to know on that topic now, which brings me to the other point:

    Is a certification a proof or acknowledgment of my capabilities?

    No way! Yes of course! Pick one…

    There are a lot of people who will have the knowledge required for a job, that haven’t even seen a test center on the inside once in their life. These guys and galls are just as able as the certified person. And the same can be said the other way around, where I would not even let a certified person near my systems because their certification isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

    This situation is largely based on the institute or company that actually created the curriculum and the test, and is largely dependent on the acceptance of the certification. The MCP program that Microsoft has is well-recognized and will most likely increase your market value when applying for a job. People take one look and recognize the program. And even if it won’t upgrade your value, it can help you get picked out of a bunch of applications since the people over at Human Resources usually scan for these type of things.

    Something like a Cisco CCIE certification is hard! It’s probably one of the toughest certifications out there and can add quite a lot of value to your resumé. But it will also help that Cisco is well-known and a very commonly used IT supplier.

    As far as I know there is no such thing as for example a 3PAR certification. And if one were to be created now, it probably won’t increase your value one bit, except for the possibility of gaining new knowledge.

    So what’s it all about?

    Well, that one is pretty easy to answer.

    For one, you will always learn new stuff when aiming for a certification. Independent from the fact if you perhaps want to know which questions you answered wrong during your test. Or perhaps even trying to find out why someone wants you to give incorrect answers (based on your experience) in a test. Or by learning because you want to prepare for a certification.

    Secondly, you will always see that you increase your value. Be it because you have more knowledge than before, even when you should flunk a test, or be it because they just might pick up your resumé when they look at certifications.

    I don’t think that anybody out there will know how much a certification is worth, and that won’t change. It’s something dynamic and will usually only give you a certain amount of recognition among those peers who have the same accreditation. But you will benefit from getting certified either way.