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Big Iron is Dead…Long Live Big Iron?

September 6th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Over the last 5 years or so with the pronounced emergence of inexpensive multi-core COTS compute platforms and the rabid evangelism of virtualization, I have debated many times with folks who continue to suggest that "big iron" — high performance equipment in the compute, network, security and storage domains — is now "extinct" and that nobody buys bespoke equipment any more.

Many of them argued "All you need is a COTS PC, package up OS/Applications and voila!  Instant appliance!  Ready for the edge, ready for the core."

Not surprisingly, many of the networking/security/application delivery companies that these folks worked for ultimately introduced custom-engineered hardware solutions, melding their software with custom hardware and COTS elements to produce a piece of big iron of their own…

About a year ago, I wrote a blog on this topic highlighted by a post titled "All your COTS multicore CPU's with non-optimized security software are belong to us," in which I extrapolated some very interesting points regarding Moore's law and the hubris surrounding the gluttony of compute power offered by higher density chipsets without the corresponding software architecture to take advantage of it.

Update: I forgot that I wrote a really good post (this March!) on this same topic titled "I Love the Smell Of Big Iron In the Morning…"

This is a little tickler to that post.

I come from the land of servicing large enterprises, service providers, municipalities and nation states  and not the SME. 

While there are certainly exceptions to the "rule," and it's reasonable to suggest that my perspective is skewed, I've always been careful to ensure I framed my discussions this way, so debating/contrasting the architectural slants of an SME with a Fortune 10 doesn't really move the discussion along any.

So, sticking with the large enterprise theme, there are two interesting divergent themes emerging: the centralization of compute and storage with the distributed nature of connectivity and information.

Without muddying the water too much about how these scenarios are not all that mutually exclusive, let's stick with the "centralization" theme for a moment.

The mainstream adoption of virtualization as an enabler brings us full-circle back around to the centralized mainframe model* of compute, networking and storage.  Now that reasonably reliable, high speed and low latency connectivity is available, centralization of resources makes sense since people can generally get access to the assets they require and the performance to get from point A to point B is for the most part acceptable (and getting more so.)

Once again, the natural consolidation of functionality and platform architecture follows suit — we're back to using big iron to deliver the balance of cost, resilience, performance and simplified management that goes along with squeezing more from less.

To wit, let's examine some recent virtualization-inspired, big iron plays:


HP introduced [recently] the Proliant BL495c G5,
the first blade designed to be a virtual machine-intensive host in a
data center rack, along with other virtualization products to enhance the offerings of VMware and Citrix Systems.

As system administrators achieve savings by consolidating 8-10 virtual
machines per server, HP is saying its new blade will host up to 32
virtual machines, based on each virtual machine
needing a minimum of four Gigabytes of memory. When 16 of the blades
are stacked in an HP C7000 enclosure, a total of 512 virtual machines
can be run from a single rack, said Jim Ganthier, director of HP
BladeSystem, its blade server division.

Network & Storage:

The Cisco Nexus 7000 Series is the flagship member of the Cisco Nexus
Family, the first in a new data center class of switching products. The
Nexus 7000 is a highly scalable modular platform that delivers up to 15
terabits per second of switching capacity in a single chassis,
supporting up to 512 10-gigabits-per-second (Gbps) Ethernet and future
delivery of 40- and 100-Gbps Ethernet. Its unified fabric architecture
combines Ethernet and storage capabilities into a single platform,
designed to provide all servers with access to all network and storage
resources. This enables data center consolidation and virtualization.
Key components of the unified fabric architecture include unified I/O
interfaces and Fibre Channel over Ethernet support to be delivered in
the future.


The Crossbeam X-Series is a carrier-class modular security services switch.  The X80 platform is Crossbeam's flagship high-end security services
platform for complete network, security.  The X80
provides up to 40 Gigabit Ethernet ports and 8 x 10 Gigabit Ethernet
ports or up to 64 Fast Ethernet ports and up to 40 Gbps of full duplex
firewall throughput.  Each network processor module features an integrated 16-core MIPS-64
security processor, a high speed network processor and a
custom-designed switch fabric FPGA.  The X80 supports up to 10
application processor modules which are based on Intel technology
running a hardened version of Linux supporting best-in-breed security
software from leading vendors in highly resilient, load-balanced

These are just a few examples.

Each of these solutions delivers the benefits of hefty amounts of virtualized service, but what you'll notice is that they do so in massive scale, offering consolidated services in high-density "big iron" configurations for scale, resilience, manageability and performance.

In this period of the technology maturity cycle, we'll see this trend continue until we hit a plateau or an inflection point — whether it is triggered due to throughput, power, heat, latency, density or whatnot.  Then we'll start anew and squeeze the balloon once more, perhaps given what I hinted at above with clusters of clouds that define an amporphous hive of virtualized big iron.

But for now, until service levels, reliability, coherence and governance are sorted, I reckon we'll see more big iron flexing it's muscle in the data center.

What about you?  Are you seeing the return of big iron in your large enterprise.  Perhaps it never left?

I for one welcome my new blinking dark overlord…



* There's even a resurgence of the mainframe itself lately.  See IBM's z/10 and Unisys' ClearPath for example.

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  1. September 6th, 2008 at 05:12 | #1

    I don't know about big iron, but our next two sites have been spec'ed out with Dell blades instead of individual Dell servers. And we've upgraded to a SAN finally 😉
    Not exactly enterprise class, but we're getting there!

  2. September 9th, 2008 at 06:38 | #2

    Hey, some of us are so far behind, we're ahead. Bring back the big iron!

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