Data Centers

Software defined data centers: The smart person's guide

This guide covers a software defined data center's common use cases, technical benefits and limitations, and what to know when deploying a SDDC for your organization.

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With the rise of cloud computing, the abstraction of hardware management from the intrinsic purpose that hardware serves has made IT administration substantially easier. This trend has permeated the data center, with software defined systems (computing, networking, and storage) becoming integral features in the deployment of IT resources.

Taking this concept to a teleonomical extreme, software defined data centers (SDDC) combine software defined systems with an additional layer of software for system orchestration with the intent to further automate data center management and administration.

This guide is both an easily digestible introduction to SDDC, as well as a "living" guide that will be updated periodically to keep IT leaders in the loop on new ways in which software defined systems can be leveraged.

SEE: Special Feature: Building the Software Defined Data Center (ZDNet/TechRepublic)

Executive summary

  • What is it? A data center that utilizes software defined systems (computing, networking, and storage) with additional software for system orchestration and management.
  • Why does it matter? Software defined systems are easier to manage than systems that require manual provisioning and configuration.
  • Who does this affect? Organizations with a workload large enough to warrant traditional data center deployments can benefit from a "full" SDDC, though smaller organizations can benefit from adopting some software defined systems.
  • When is this happening? This concept has existed in various forms since 2002, though only recently are organizations considering adoption of SDDC.
  • How do I get it? While it is possible to build a custom solution for your organization, various server hardware vendors offer pre-qualified, easy to deploy solutions.

What is a software defined data center?

At a bare minimum, a software defined data center (SDDC) is the combination of a software defined computing platform (a virtual machine or application container), software defined storage, and software defined networking. These three software components are then controlled by system management software that handles the configuration and lifecycle of virtual machines, storage, and networking.

This concept — an amalgamation of software for managing hardware with additional software to manage that software — is not a particularly new one. In an industry awash with buzzwords and acronyms, SDDC is the inevitable result of marketing departments attempting to differentiate products.

Presently, VMware (and hardware companies bundling VMware software with their servers) is the only company offering products explicitly labeled SDDC, though competitors offer products that perform much if not all of the same tasks; Cisco offers the Unified Computing System, while the increasingly popular open-source project OpenStack can be configured for effectively the same purposes.

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Why do software defined data centers matter?

As advances in processor performance, storage capacities, and networking ability have resulted in dramatically lower hardware costs, data center deployments are becoming less focused on squeezing every single byte of performance out of hardware, and more focused on how best to utilize that hardware with functional software.

Software defined systems — and SDDC as a whole — presents an opportunity to bundle commodity server hardware with open-source (or at a minimum, standardized) software, freeing organizations from hardware lock-in, and the vicious cycle of buying vendor components to recover from a failure caused by the faulty hardware of the same vendor. This problem has plagued RAID controllers and networking hardware that relies on closed-source, manufacturer-specific firmware and protocols that do not interoperate well (if at all) with competing products.

As a whole, the SDDC service model allows for a greater level of abstraction, thereby allowing any commodity computing hardware or combination of hardware — from different (likely competing) vendors — to work together harmoniously on networking hardware that's similarly abstracted. This in turn allows resource allocation to be performed on demand, with resources programmatically available as required. This commoditized hardware can then be used in conjunction with other computing resources, such as public cloud providers or hybrid cloud deployments, which include data centers in geographically disparate locations.

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Who do software defined data centers affect?

Organizations with large data center buildouts, particularly those with multiple physical locations, stand to gain the most from adopting the "full" SDDC model. Naturally, if the computing or storage requirements of your organization are not large enough to warrant the infrastructure needed for a traditional data center, the SDDC model provides no particular added value.

That said, organizations of all sizes are increasingly adopting individual software defined systems, particularly software defined compute (application containers or hardware virtualization) and software defined storage (such as Ceph or Gluster). To a lesser extent, software defined networking is being adopted across organizations of all sizes, though as a function of the number of systems being connected, larger organizations stand to benefit more from software defined networking.

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When are software defined data centers happening?

Software defined systems have been around for quite some time. Hardware virtualization is a decades-old concept, while software defined storage dates back to 1993 as PVFS. The unified idea of a software defined data center dates back to 2002, according to a Forrester report by Robert Stroud and Richard Fichera, with HP's Utility Data Center product, which was discontinued in late 2004.

Overall, the market for SDDC is growing. For organizations that require a large data center presence, the ease of automation and potential cost savings in a SDDC deployment are attractive outcomes that are garnering increased attention as roadmaps are being plotted for upgrade paths from currently deployed systems.

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How do I get a software defined data center?

With open source software such as OpenStack, and assembling your own servers, you can build your own software defined data center. That is a significant endeavor, as a great deal of effort is expended in qualifying and validating every component to ensure that server, networking, and storage hardware will interoperate in a predictable manner.

Hardware vendors such as Fujitsu offer pre-qualified solutions such as its PRIMEFLEX series, which can optionally be bundled with Red Hat OpenStack Platform, which includes deployment and operations support from Red Hat.

More tightly integrated solutions are available, however. Hardware vendors that sell systems pre-qualified for VMware's EVO SDDC product, such as Quanta Cloud Technology's QxStack simply need to be connected to power and the network, as the the system comes pre-imaged with information about the hardware shipped in the rack; it uses this information, plus user-provided environmental data, to initialize the rack.

Practically all enterprise vendors offer SDDC solutions aligned with either OpenStack, VMware EVO SDDC, or Cisco Unified Computing.

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About James Sanders

James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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