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Commentary: Get with utility computing

The time is right for a new data center architecture built on standards, commodity components and consolidated control. Don't wait: Companies can save on IT costs now, even as the technology is still emerging.

Commentary: Get with utility computing
By Forrester Research
Special to CNET News.com
September 9, 2003, 2:15PM PT

By Frank Gillett, Principal Analyst

During the past 18 months, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Sun Microsystems have kicked off multibillion-dollar initiatives in support of so-called utility computing, which Forrester refers to as "organic IT."

Organic information technology is a new data center architecture built on standards, commodity components and consolidated control. Don't wait: Companies can save on IT costs now, even as the technology is still emerging.

We use the term organic IT to convey the idea of IT systems that are naturally shared, self-managing and efficient, as are beehives or ant colonies. Technologies like Web services, rapid server provisioning, storage virtualization and network route-optimization technologies will cast servers, storage and network links into organic IT--centralized control over commodity infrastructure assets. This could cut IT costs in half over the next five years.

Three systems vendors have joined a horde of start-ups to kick off organic IT initiatives: Sun launched first with N1, followed by IBM's on-demand efforts that consolidated autonomic computing, grid efforts and utility pricing. And HP rolled its Utility Data Center into a larger Adaptive Enterprise initiative this spring.

The three elements
Chief information officers can save money in the first year of their 10-year organic IT voyage by sharing servers and storage to run them at a higher capacity and slashing bandwidth costs of wide area networks with low-cost route-optimization gear. But to make sure that these efforts are on track to deliver the long-term benefits of organic IT--infrastructure that's heavy on standard components and that rapidly responds to rising and falling demands--CIOs must craft a three-pronged strategy:

1. Standardize. Standards are the critical starting point for "commoditization," consistency and control. The first element of the organic IT strategy is to adopt real and de facto standards like Internet Protocol (IP), Standard Object Access Protocol (SOAP) and Intel processors in every purchase. CIOs should slash variability in the data center with approved purchase lists, standard configurations and bans on dedicated servers and direct-attached storage.

2. Instrument. The second element of organic IT strategy is "instrumentation"--knowing what capacity you've got and gaining control over how it's deployed. Instrumentation is the starting point for raising your server capacity usage from 20 percent to 80 percent. In storage, for example, Candera helps companies find and catalog storage assets. The payoffs? Higher capacity utilization--and fewer purchases.

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3. Virtualize. In the same way that a thermostat simplifies and automates climate control, virtualization technologies like SOAP and IP bury IT complexity and automation behind simple provisioning and control interfaces--and focus on what the asset does rather than on how it does it. Virtualization lets you bring more storage capacity online without reconfiguring the system--or replace a bad server blade without bringing the application down.

Criteria for choosing contractors
Companies can turn to specialists like Opsware or Vieo for organic IT technology assistance today. But for help in the 10-year organic IT voyage, CIOs should plan on designating an organic IT prime contractor by the end of 2003. To narrow the field, ask your infrastructure suppliers questions in three areas:

• Current offering. How good are the vendor's services and products in helping companies simplify infrastructure with standardization and instrumentation? Does the vendor have a full range of virtualization products, including a data center control rack? Does the vendor work with appropriate partners, deliver a practical migration path and offer heterogeneous capabilities?

• Strategy. Does the vendor offer a clear, comprehensive vision for organic IT that's built on open standards and heterogeneity, with a product road map to match? Does the vendor have a realistic organizational structure in place to ensure long-term funding, drive the strategy and deliver the products? Does the strategy include the right partners to help you?

• Market presence. How healthy is the vendor's business? What is the vendor's revenue? What countries does it service effectively? How well regarded is the vendor by its existing customers?

Prime contractors
Today the big three Unix vendors are your best bet to lead organic IT implementations--Dell and others may come up later. An aggressive approach to organic IT requires consistent adherence to standard technologies and configurations across servers, storage and network access. At this early stage of the technologies that make organic IT possible, companies will need help from a prime contractor able to re-architect the data center and retrofit existing gear so that it can be consistently provisioned and managed.

Forrester believes that only the three systems vendors--HP, IBM and Sun--have the products, services and expertise that are needed to play the role of an organic IT contractor. We evaluated these contractors on their current offering, strategy and market presence. Here's an overview:

• HP. This company has a small lead in organic IT over IBM because of advantages in shipping products for server provisioning and storage virtualization, plus a better product road map. But HP must battle against IBM's stronger market presence--and prepare for IBM to catch up by 2004. This is best for companies that have strong Microsoft commitments or shops ready to bet big on UDC (Universal Data Channel), which requires rewiring the data center to gain efficiencies across existing equipment.

• IBM. Big Blue's top-to-bottom commitment to an "on-demand operating environment"--plus new storage and management products--will make it the standard bearer for organic IT. But today, IBM suffers from a complex, futuristic vision that overemphasizes professional services. IBM's recent acquisition of Think Dynamics puts it on the path to delivering a software-only, incremental solution that lets companies try server sharing without making major commitments.

• Sun. This company has enough products and vision to climb into the organic IT contractor competition, especially with the acquisitions of CenterRun, Pirus Networks and Terraspring. But to get to the leaders category, Sun must swallow its Solaris pride and put together an offering that is credible in mainstream heterogeneous IT shops--while overcoming deficiencies in management software and professional services. It is best for hard-core Sun shops.

© 2003, Forrester Research, Inc. All rights reserved. Information is based on best available resources. Opinions reflect judgment at the time and are subject to change.