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January 2010 | Volume 13 / Number 1
Virtualization Reality

VCE: A Real Candidate or Name Recognition

In November, Cisco (News - Alert), EMC and VMware announced the creation of the Virtual Computing Environment coalition: a collaborative solution allowing IT departments to deploy a complete virtualized data center solution consisting of virtual servers, networking fabric and back-end storage. Although this isn’t the first technology collaboration to offer a complete virtual data center deployment – VARs and larger platform providers such as HP and Sun also offer similarly packaged solutions – it is the first solution of its type from three primary players and leaders in their respective markets: VMware with virtual platforms; Cisco with Layer 2 network backbone connectivity; EMC (News - Alert) with storage platforms.

In addition to offering a complete deployment solution, this announcement emphasizes the move of virtualization beyond the hypervisor to include infrastructure as part of that solution. One of the primary challenges of deploying a large-scale virtual solution is managing individual components – compute, network and storage – as one single unit. While it’s always been the case that these components were managed discretely in a physical environment, virtualization enables IT departments to become more mobile and agile throughout the data center. To enable that agility, current mature virtual server offerings need to be managed as part of the larger data center solution, which includes network and storage as part of a holistic infrastructure deployment. By elevating the solution above the individual components, VCE may be the catalyst for extending virtualization’s agility across data center silos.

Time will tell if VCE is a real contender in the virtual data center space. While this announcement runs the risk of being nothing more than a name alliance – as so many multi-vendor IT alliances have become in the past – VCE does include a legitimate technical solution nugget – Vblocks: reference architectures assembled into specific functional clusters, such as internal/external clouds, virtual desktops, etc.

In essence, VCE is a design solution that pieces together these Vblocks to achieve a specific deployment architecture. The idea with Vblocks is that an IT department can choose to deploy a VCE internal cloud, for example, and then pick and choose additional Vblock components to plug into its internal deployment, such as adding the external cloud Vblock component.

The fact that VCE is itself built on top of Vblocks opens up future opportunities to extend VCE deployments into other solutions. VCE is an ecosystem of Vblocks that can be extended to other technology vendors, integrators and VARs. If a security VAR sells IAM solutions today it can theoretically bind those solutions to a VCE deployment using Vblocks, allowing that solution to be added on top of an existing deployment.

We’re still in the theoretical stages of that architecture, and it will most likely take a good year before we know if the VCE ecosystem really is open and available to everyone. So far the signs are good that the VCE Vblock ecosystem is on the right path: many of the partners that helped VMware launch vCloud Express in August are also VCE Vblock partners. At the same time, however, it’s possible that VCE could keep a very tight grip on Vblocks with its Acadia solutions company, a services group created as part of VCE to work with IT departments to design and deploy Vblock pieces. Acadia could be the single-point gateway for other vendors and partners to access Vblock tools like APIs, or Acadia could be the choke-point for those same tools, locking out vendors and partners that offer competitive technologies or solutions that don’t align with VCE goals.

One of the more interesting underlying components of VCE is Cisco, which is providing core networking solutions – the Nexus line of physical and virtual switches for Layer 2 connectivity, and the server platform UCS. VCE moves Cisco squarely into the virtual server solution market, competing against other server platform providers such as Dell (News - Alert) and HP. Today, most IT customers trust VMware for virtual platforms and EMC for storage; but are customers willing to trust Cisco with two critical components of the virtual infrastructure, networking and the physical server platform? Not only is VCE asking IT departments to put two very large virtual eggs in one basket with Cisco, but also if UCS is a mature enough platform to support critical virtualized applications. If so, then VCE may prove to be exactly what customers are looking for when building out new data centers. If not, VCE may end up being a solution with a good name and great lineage, but not worthy of production deployments, solely based on the physical server platform. VCE is a big gamble for Cisco in moving beyond Layer 2 networking.

Either way, the VCE announcement is definitely a step in the right direction for virtual infrastructure and integrated virtualization mindshare, a step that brings market awareness to virtualization in the data center beyond the hypervisor. IT

Alan Murphy is technical marketing manager of management and virtualization solutions with F5 Networks (News - Alert) (, which provides solutions focused on ensuring the secure, reliable and fast delivery of applications.

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