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EMC vs. the 'big appliance'

EMC's Chuck Hollis likes virtual appliances. Big database appliances? Not so much.

The debate over single-function server appliances versus general-purpose servers is a long-standing one.

Appliances first came onto the scene in the late 1990s during the first Internet boom. They focused on a particular task, such as Web serving, and were designed to be ready to install with minimum muss, fuss, or skill. This assembly line approach to server farms was to be the secret sauce that made possible infinite growth without infinite IT staff.

Cobalt Networks was perhaps the best known and most sophisticated of the companies to offer appliances. Sun Microsystems later acquired Cobalt and then failed to successfully integrate it. This arguably presaged the mixed history of subsequent Sun acquisitions in general. But it also highlighted how server appliances remained much more of a niche than envisioned by their more vocal proponents.

The knocks on server appliances then and now haven't changed much. EMC Global Marketing CTO Chuck Hollis lays out some of the negatives in a recent post.

It's not the first big appliance that causes the problem, it's when you have a fleet of them that you realize you've traded one class of headache for another.

None of them are built the same way. None of them manage the same way. None of them are supported the same way. None of them know how to work together in a cooperative fashion, and so on.

Want standardization at the different layers of an architectural stack? Sorry.

Want a pool of resources that can flow and flex to support whatever workload is at hand? Sorry, can't do.

Want to use the latest-greatest infrastructure technology from (choose your favorite vendor here)? Sorry about that as well.

Hollis sums up his case as follows: "You can see the nature of the trade-off, can't you? It's basically trading immediate gratification for a specific project versus creating long-term value through IT infrastructure."

EMC's interest in this debate is twofold.

The first is to push the notion of virtual appliances, pre-built virtual machine images that can be deployed on a virtual infrastructure. The idea is that an IT department can buy or build an encapsulated stack of software for a particular function and then deploy it across a server infrastructure of their own choosing. Given that EMC owns about 90 percent of VMware, its interest in promoting additional reasons to deploy server virtualization is obvious.

Virtual appliances also have a close affinity to cloud-computing infrastructure as a service. Amazon Machine Images (AMI) are a form of virtual appliance. And EMC is moving in this direction as well with Atmos.

The second reason that we see Chuck Hollis pushing back on the appliance concept is that we're seeing other large and powerful vendors, his competitors, promoting it. As opposed to the appliances of the Internet boom that mostly focused on network functions, this round is also, or even primarily, about heavy-duty business applications.

Oracle's Exadata is perhaps the canonical example of today's "Big Appliance," as Hollis phrases it. However, IBM has its own take on deploying and operating complex workloads such as business analytics. These may not be cookie-cutter appliances like a firewall or a Web server appliance. The tasks in question are too complex for that.

But they still bring together hardware and software from a single vendor and bundle them together. The marketing literature legitimately couches this integration in terms of customer benefits such as optimization. But such bundles also, and certainly not incidentally, increase a vendor's footprint and reduce the opportunity for others to capture a slice of the pie.