Wednesday, April 11, 2007

imho Appliance hype building to fever pitch


Enterprise software vendors have devised many ingenious new approaches for crafting solutions. Over the past few years, vendors have ventured well beyond their traditional focus on licensed software packages. Many have begun to offer solutions that incorporate such diverse approaches as open source software (OSS), service-oriented architecture (SOA), and software as a service (SaaS).

Some software vendors have even taken a bold step into the world of hardware. A growing number are offering “appliances,” which integrate software with CPU, storage, and other hardware to deliver function-specific, performance-optimized solutions for quick deployment. Essentially, an appliance allows a vendor to pre-equip a “shrink-wrapped” infrastructure component to fit a particular functional role and support a specific capacity, throughput, and performance profile.

Appliance wars are upon us, as can be seen in IT vendors’ eagerness to slap the label on a growing range of hardware-integrated solutions, most of which are much bigger than a breadbox, and also far more complex and costly (though, ostensibly, less so than the software-centric solutions they hope to supplant).

Appliance hype is building to a fever pitch. Every vendor claims that its appliances are true “plug-and-play” solutions, though few customers are so na├»ve as to imagine that a complex IT solution can be as easy to install and setup as, say, a toaster-oven. In addition, vendors and industry observers are starting to line up behind competing definitions of what constitutes a “true appliance.” Depending on whose religion you subscribe to, an appliance must be a simple “black box” device (such as a blade), or it can be a complex assemblage of processing, input/output, storage, and other components integrated across one or more racks in an enterprise data center.

Of course, there are plenty of opportunities for overzealous vendors to stretch the concept of an appliance to the breaking point. Unfortunately, one of the core features that most people associate with appliances—their physical tangibility--is starting to fall by the wayside. Increasingly, vendors are exploring the nouveau notion of the “virtual appliance.” This refers to the concept of a self-contained software package that can be deployed rapidly to diverse operating and hardware platforms through virtualization technologies such as VMWare and Xen. It’s not clear how these “virtual appliances” differ from existing development paradigms, such as Java, that also promise the ability to “write once run anywhere.”

But like it or not, appliances—in all their bewildering proliferation—are here to stay, and they are moving into the mainstream of enterprise computing and networking.

Many IT professionals have already taken a first foray into this new world, in the form of content-aware network appliances from the likes of Cisco, Juniper, F5, Citrix, and IBM. Usually deployed at the network perimeter, these appliances look into the contents of application messages and take various policy-driven actions, such as fine-grained access control and dynamic rerouting, in response to what they find in payload data.

Just as important, appliances have begun to take up permanent residence at the heart of the data center, in the form of data warehousing (DW) appliances. In the past few years, DW appliance pure-plays such as Netezza, DATAllegro, and Greenplum have seen their market share grow. Even longtime software-oriented DW vendors such as Teradata, Oracle, and IBM have begun to offer integrated solution packages for appliance-type deployments.

These trends have been developing for several years, but the appliance market reached a turning point in March when IBM announced that it had re-architected its entire DW product family as appliances. At that time, Big Blue launched the most comprehensive, scalable enterprise DW appliance solution family on the market. Its new “Balanced Warehouse” family of appliances addresses DW price-points and requirements ranging from high-end enterprise DWs down to smaller, function-limited DWs and low-end departmental data marts.

That very same week, business intelligence (BI) market leader Business Objects announced that it too was putting appliances at the core of its ongoing go-to-market strategy. To develop BI, DW, and data integration (DI) appliances for various customer segments, Business Objects is partnering with a wide range of complementary vendors, ranging from large established server/storage providers to pure-play appliance startups. It has even factored “virtual appliances” into its long-range roadmap, demonstrating the breadth of its vision.

Without a doubt, appliances will have an impact on every component of the enterprise application architecture. If nothing else, the need for incrementally scalable application infrastructure components will continue to grow, stoked by relentless increases in transaction and data volumes across the service bus.

Enterprise IT professionals should begin right away to factor appliances into their SOA strategies.