The shape of things to come
There are startups that two years ago I would have said were novel because they sold a product, not a feature. They integrated multiple features – that themselves were products not too long ago – into a single item and sold it at a lower price. Those startups haven't even finished their lifecycle and already I can see quite clearly that they are merely features of an IEM.
IEMs won't completely eliminate systems administrators, but they will completely transform the data centre. Gone from most organisations are dedicated infrastructure specialities like storage admin, virtualisation admin and network admin. A general operations – or more likely, DevOps – staff will take their place in all but the largest organisations.
Perhaps the best analogue is physical building infrastructure. Most companies don't have a plumber or a roofer on staff. They have a general utilities body – a "handyman" – that fixes what they can, and calls in specialists for what they can't. Larger organisations – a university campus for example – absolutely will keep some specialities to hand. A plumber is probably a safe bet, even if the roofer is unlikely.
By the same token, network admins will be the infrastructure positions hardest to fully eliminate. Networks are the bit that have to interact with the outside world and the networking world's abject inability to play nicely with standards means that in any large organisation, someone has to babysit the thing.
As I see it, the data centre container vision of the deceased Sun Microsystems is – a decade later – starting to be realised. Instead of needing consume entire containers, however, we're on the cusp of being able to provide a full suite of data centre services in a 2U Twin form factor.
IEMs are bringing the entry point to full data centre services down to something that – by 2020 – 50-seat companies should be able to afford to deploy on premises, with full and simple access to a wide array of hybrid cloud services. They already scale up and scale out simply and easily.
Almost everyone reading this has some sort of vested interest in preserving the status quo. That status quo is, after all, what is currently paying our mortgages. Resistance to IEMs will be enormous. Despite this, how many of us can afford to gamble that I'm wrong?
If you're a systems administrator, can you afford not to gain development or at least DevOps skills beyond your infrastructure roots? If you're a vendor and you don't have an IEM solution, and I'm right that IEMs are about to be a very big thing, then you're probably already dead and you just don't know it yet.
The future of the data centre is about more than performance results and benchmarks. It's about more than individual features or varying measures of density. More than anything else, the success or failure of the IEM concept will boil down to trust. Who would you trust to deliver you an entire data centre's worth of services in what amounts to a black box?
How many intercompatible vendors would you require before you bought into that concept? And could we ever trust the vendors involved not to turn the screws once we'd bought in? If IEMs are – as I believe them to be – inevitable, then a new system of checks and balances will need to be developed. The delicate balance between the power vendors, customers and regulators will need to be very carefully managed. I hope we're all up to the task.
* I could have gone on using the SDI nomenclature, but various industry marketing hooligans decided to misappropriate the term to refer to their pathetically simplistic legacy converged or hyper-converged infrastructure solutions. Infrastructure Endgame Machine is a lovely bit of hyperbole that – I hope – no marketing wonk will try to steal unless they've actually built one. The internet being what it is, calling what you've made an Endgame Machine will attract every vicious piranha on the planet to tear you apart, so if you use the IEM terminology you'd better be ready to deliver.