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Designing a VAR strategy for unified data center hardware

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Unified data center hardware: Changing the equation

Converged infrastructure is gaining momentum as the new model for data center upgrades. How should smaller specialized VARs prepare themselves for this big cultural shift?

xToday’s data centers may be getting a makeover. If big IT hardware vendors have their way, data centers will soon fill up with unified or converged data center hardware instead of the usual piecemeal combinations of servers, storage and networking. This converged data center hardware --  big pre-integrated chunks of IT -- will ostensibly cut down on wiring and energy costs and pack more compute/storage/networking power into less sprawl than is conventionally found in data centers.

That sales model—which involves bigger buy-in across traditional IT silos—has huge ramifications for smaller VARs that are used to selling best-of-breed chunks of storage or servers or routers and then knitting them into unique customer solutions.

Most data centers today rely on their server group to spec out, recommend and sign off on a given vendor. The same goes for the storage and networking crew, with each picking out its own specialized hardware. As a result, many shops run EMC or NetApp storage with Hewlett-Packard, Dell or IBM servers connected by Cisco Systems, Juniper or Brocade networking.

But hardware vendors, most notably HP and Cisco, say the future belongs to the bigger pre-integrated hardware bundles. In that world, deals would be bigger and require a higher level customer sign-off—typically by a C-level executive. Smaller VARs with an eye on this new reality of converged infrastructure are already looking at ways to adapt their business models.

Bigger deals, slower process
Converged infrastructure does mean bigger deals, said Jamie Shepard, executive vice president of International Computerware Inc. (ICI), a solution provider in Marlborough, Mass. But it also means a slower, more reflective sales process. It’s always easier to get a company to sign off on a $2,000 server rather than a $50,000 or $70,000 converged solution, Shepard said.

For larger VARs, this may be no big deal. “It all depends on the reseller,” said Joe Onisick, technical solutions architect at St. Louis-based World Wide Technology Inc. “Larger systems integrators—including us—have been converging infrastructure sales already, so this is not that different,” Onisick said. In many accounts, World Wide already talks to high-level execs. In others, it might now bring in multiple teams to sell higher into an account, Onisick said.
 

Smaller VARs that typically deal with one or two of the technology silos should think about broadening their practices or partnering with other VARs with different specialties to pitch joint deals. Both options are big cultural shifts.

In Shepard’s view, customers are showing more interest in converged infrastructure. “But you, as a partner, have to ask them to define what they mean by ‘converged,’” he said. “You can converge and unify networks -- the Nexus is Cisco’s bread and butter there. Or you can converge and unify storage.” 

The likely scenario is that convergence will come in stages. “We already have these discussions about technology unification and how to adopt it,” Shepard said. “You have to talk to the CIO and ask, “Why do you want convergence? What does it mean to you?”

Many VARs said one reason for the questions is that many companies that have deferred data center upgrades now feel pressure to move and may even have the budget to build the foundations of private clouds.  “They want to invest in what they can own versus all this other cloud stuff you hear about,” Shepard said.

Demand for converged infrastructure can vary by the type and size of a company as well. “Big service providers—those with core competencies in managed services, telecom, etc.—they’re the ones buying converged infrastructure,” said James Staten, analyst with Forrester Research Inc.

There’s a big sociological and political change involved when people feel their jobs are at risk, Staten said. Because of that, many end-user organizations with strong management silos around storage or servers will resist the convergence sales pitch. “A network admin could transition to the guy who manages quality of service across network pools from the guy who manages and changes ports all day,” Staten said. The analogous technician at a VAR company should probably consider a similar career path, he added.

How converged is converged?
Most customers have to be educated that the whole notion of a one-stop converged hardware shop is still more illusion than reality. For example, HP BladeSystem Matrix converged solution still relies on Brocade Communications technology for a big part of the SAN software networking component and Cisco UCS relies on EMC storage.

Realists in the channel point to this type of interdependence to reinforce the idea that no single vendor can provide a bundle that brings the best-of-breed technology across the board. The VCE Company’s Vblocks promise the best of all worlds—pretested and preconfigured Cisco server hardware, EMC storage and VMware virtualization set up to slip right into a customer’s data center while the Flexpod swaps out EMC for NetApp storage. 

“Brocade still offers the best Fibre Channel, the best interface,” said one long-time VAR that works with all three vendors. “It’s just that they kept quiet and stuck to their guns on high-performance connectivity while HP and Cisco pretend they can do it all.”

Flexpod is more a bunch of IP than a prepackaged solution, which is the same way VCE started, Shepard said. In the beginning with VCE Vblocks, VARs figured out how to configure the VMs, how many CPUs were needed, what kind of connectivity, storage was needed, he said. “We bring the numbers back to the VCE guys, who plug them into a spreadsheet and tell us ‘here’s what it’ll be.’ Then they manufacture it and ship it out,” he said.

Questioning the converged infrastructure premise
Some VARs question the very notion that customers are clamoring for converged infrastructure. They say customers remain leery of the whole “one throat to choke” rationale behind one-vendor solutions.

“I’m not seeing much demand for it at all,” said Todd Knapp, CEO and CTO of Envision Technology Advisors LLC, in Providence, R.I. “It’s an interesting idea, however. If you go with Cisco [Unified Computing System], you’re locking yourself into that set of vendors and whatever technology they choose to bring out indefinitely,” he said. ”Most CIOs I know aren’t comfortable with that.”

There are still too many IT constituencies for this idea to gain traction, Knapp said. “In large environments, you’ve got a storage group, an infrastructure group, a Wintel group, maybe a Unix group—each with its own needs and each wanting to have control over its own environment.”

There’s a method to the silo madness, Knapp said. “UCS centralizes the infrastructure technology to a degree that breaks some security barriers,” he said. “If you think about it, a major bank or financial institution keeps those groups segregated so no one person can do a lot of damage.”

But others say the march toward converged hardware is inevitable. “This is part of a macro trend we’ve seen for 25 years,” Staten said. “If you go back to the client-server era, most IT departments built their own PCs. They’d get the motherboards, chassis and put them together because they had the skills and they could build them for less. But as manufacturers got good with inventory management and eliminated cost, there was not as much value in BYO PCs.”


HOW VARS SHOULD PREP FOR CONVERGED HARDWARE

In theory, converged data center hardware means integrated gear that takes up less space, consumes less energy and eliminates excess wiring. Pete Sclafani, CIO of 6Connect, a San Francisco area data center specialist, has the following advice for VARs looking to expand their expertise in this area:

  • Think about the whole IT chain, not just the parts. In the old model, if you update just the switches now, you’re often in for a cabling and interface nightmare. Instead, bundle like mad. Sell the host bus adapters or other interface cards with the solution so the client gets the full package. It also helps VARs build in margins.
  • Add services. Fielding an offsite integration center lets a VAR sell pre-tested and preconfigured hardware that will roll right into the data center. In this case, the VAR—not HP, Cisco or the VCE Company—is the integration point.
  • Offer options. Come up with a “good, better, best” list of solutions. It gives customers a better understanding of the impact of cost and features. It also starts conversations that will help customers feel comfortable with whatever choice is made and confident in the VAR as trusted adviser.
  • Talk to the CFO. It’s great to chat up the IT guys, but with budgets still tight, it really helps if the VAR understands the customer’s business and pain points. Even more important is if the VAR can communicate that to the person in charge of the budget. Forget the marketing points, and play up real numbers and case studies.

About the author:
Barbara Darrow is senior news director for TechTarget’s Data Center and Virtualization Media Group and has covered technology, business and the channel for more than 20 years as reporter and editor. Prior to TechTarget, Darrow worked at CRN where she focused on channel issues and software news. She has also written for InfoWorld, ComputerWorld, Network World, InfoSec Magazine, eWeek and other publications. Contact her at bdarrow@techtarget.com.

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This was last published in May 2011

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