Avnet on the ground at NetApp Insight, Berlin

Evan Unrue, EMEA Converged Infrastructure Technical Lead, Avnet Technology Solutions

WHAT PROBLEMS IS FLEXPOD™ SOLVING?

Avnet ships pre-engineered Flexpod systems all over the world for NetApp; call it Trade Show Flexpod as a Service. Our primary purpose in this endeavour is to maintain, ship and deploy these Flexpod units into the various trade shows NetApp attends for demonstration  and display purposes, and then to educate whoever wants to understand the nuances, architecture, features and benefits of Flexpod. This year, however, was slightly different.

That’s because a solid proportion of people approaching the Flexpod were customers who had deployed Flexpod recently – or not so recently in some cases. This gave me the opportunity to ask a few questions:

  1. Why did they buy Flexpod?
  2. Did it deliver what they expected?
  3. What were they expecting it to deliver?
  4. How does Flexpod factor into their technology roadmap?
  5. What pain did it ease, if any?

One recurring theme was that many were so inwardly focused on what they were looking for when they bought the Flexpod, that this fixed reference point shaped how they leveraged the platform. As a result, they hadn’t fully explored the possibilities of what they can now do, with Flexpod on the ground.

What problems does Avnet solve?

Many of these reference points were re-enforced simply by “how they had always done it”. When I walked through the full extent of what they had invested in with Flexpod – things it can do, ways it can be deployed, managed, automated and the strong complimentary technologies from Cisco and NetApp that tie into Flexpod – some really interesting conversations developed around what customers could do next.

For context, the types of organisations I was speaking with were as follows:

  • A large media and publishing group with multiple divisions
  • A global mining company
  • A few service providers
  • A company that provides vertically-aligned managed IT to pharma and a few other verticals.
  • A number of typical commercial SME outfits (averaging a few hundred to a few thousand users).

CHALLENGES WHICH DROVE THESE COMPANIES TO LOOK AT FLEXPOD™

Why did these organisations buy Flexpod in the first place?  The reasons ranged from being fed up of managing failing infrastructure and easing management pain to delivering on a more strategic IT roadmap.

Below are some of the reasons Flexpod customers I spoke with came to explore Flexpod™ as a solution:

Managing an “Accidental Architecture”

Dealing with increasingly unmanageable infrastructure born through sweating assets for too long, tactically replacing failing kit, plugging resource gaps, and in some cases through acquisition of other businesses where they have new infrastructure which has to be stitched into an existing platform.

This cocktail of diversely-branded old and new kit in many cases results in a seemingly endless struggle to keep critical applications up in the face of failing hardware or a constant flow of troubleshooting tasks, as the thin veneer of interoperability grows ever thinner. For the customers I spoke to, the resulting “accidental architecture” consumed so much time to maintain, innovation seemed to be off the table.

Supporting/deploying platforms and applications in the field

One thing was clear. A lack of standardisation was causing real issues around time-to-resolution of support issues, and time-to-deployment of applications and infrastructure. These customers had many platforms out in the field which weren’t necessarily poorly constructed, but the lack of standardisation in configuration, vendor technology and even the way the infrastructure was racked, patched and managed made it hard to apply a procedural approach to conducting a root cause analysis of issues and resolving them in good time.

A few of the companies I spoke with likened deployment of any significant applications to playing Jenga, in that stacking new workloads on creaking and overly-agnostic infrastructure was compounding the “accidental architecture” issue. They had to stitch resources together in increasingly creative ways and tactically deploy infrastructure on the fly. This process is not a quick one and the time it takes to prep everything for these new applications often takes weeks or months.

The IT vs Business Expanse

As NetApp Insight is primarily a technical conference, it was of course mainly attended by engineers, IT Managers, IT Directors and CTOs rather than customer CEOs and CFOs, so admittedly I only heard one side of the story here. However, this side made for an interesting story. A lot of these guys had become accustomed to feeling like “the help”: they were rarely invited to discuss the topics which influenced the demands being pushed onto the IT business; they weren’t asked what IT could do for the business; and the topic of making IT a profit centre rather than a cost centre was completely alien. The business attitude around old and hard to maintain kit is often to let to sweat because “it works, it’s fine and nothing has broken yet” – this divide forces IT into reactive mode.

The Battle with Shadow IT

The group IT Director of one company was faced with a situation where there were three distinct parts of the business, and each had aligned themselves to deploying applications with a different cloud provider for dev and non-critical/non-core applications. This was a struggle for IT as they were losing visibility of the business’ application landscape, competing with external IT providers and at real risk of breaching certain regulations if data was being dealt with on cloud platforms outside their sphere of control.

Flexpod Services by Avnet

DID FLEXPOD™ FIX THESE ISSUES?

Flexpod isn’t a magic box with the answer to all companies’ IT struggles, but it does give customers a platform they can leverage to address their issues. There has to be an appetite for business to address the people and process aspects around IT, and most importantly the business attitude towards IT, before any technology is going to offer a long-lasting solution. To put it bluntly, you can buy a new car, but if you’re a bad driver, a new car isn’t going to stop you having car crashes. Much like the relationship between driver and automobile, the driver needs to know where he or she is going, have full control of the vehicle and listen to the engine to know when it’s going wrong. These same rules apply for the relationship between the business and IT.

Starting from the bottom and working up, one thing Flexpod gives many of these organisations is control. Standardisation of hardware and software makes lifecycle management of IT simpler and less painful. Less diversity in the infrastructure means they can manage firmware levels across platforms with decreased risk, hardware interoperability is a non-issue as the components are all certified to work together, no questions asked. Adding new resource aligns to the set standardisation around Flexpod, meaning infrastructure deployments and application roll outs are massively accelerated.

Flexpod converged infrastructure

Another by-product of Flexpod’s standardisation is that with everything being a known commodity within the datacentre or across sites, companies can start to apply more efficient root cause analysis procedures with less guesswork around how they troubleshoot issues within their infrastructure.  This benefit is compounded further when you consider Flexpod is supported as a single platform, meaning you’re not spending half the day trying to get one vendor to take ownership of the issue as they point fingers amongst themselves.

Ultimately gaining control over your infrastructure means less downtime, less time troubleshooting alerts, and less of your time wasted. This allows more time to deploy people on tasks that actually improve, and don’t just “fix” things.

When the IT organisation moves out of a purely reactive state and has time to be pro-active, they can start to look at how to align closer to the business. In reality, this works both ways – they have to be met in the middle. But without the need to be purely reactive, there is at least time and breathing space to have the important conversations and start to make changes.

Something that one of the organisations I spoke with was looking to deal with was their shadow IT issue. Their roadmap involved leveraging Flexpod to regain some control around their core IT, and over time implement automation elements, such as UCS Director, prime service catalogue and a few others, to start developing a service-oriented and policy-driven approach to how they deliver internal services. Then over time, they could standardise on a set of cloud providers and leverage these same policy-driven approaches to manage how and where things go into the cloud. This would allow the business to consume from their own IT in much the same way they had in the cloud, but IT regains control of the application landscape and ensures they remain compliant where needed.

In summary, Flexpod offers a mechanism to help IT get control of a business’ infrastructure and free up time and money to do things better. Getting to the hub of it, doing things better means delivering services more quickly and seeing faster returns, or rationalising how you do things today and easing operating expenses both in time and man hours. The business is certainly responsible for implementing fundamental changes, but Flexpod is helping many customers execute faster, with less risk and with less pain.

 

If you’re a partner looking for more information on our Flexpod solution, visit our website: http://avnet.me/fsa

Posted under Converged infrastructure, IT infrastructure, Storage

Top tips for selling SaaS

Director Cloud Practice (EMEA)

Kevin Collins, Director Cloud Practice (EMEA)

In my last blog I covered the key challenges and benefits of implementing the SaaS model. In part two of the SaaS series, I’d like to offer some top tips for selling SaaS.

 

What’s the right SaaS model for you?

So you have decided to build your own application and it is now time to take it to market; but where do you start and what is the right model for you? Well first of all you have to decide if you are going to just licence your software and have a third party support it or you are going to stand up the software yourself and deliver it out as SaaS. While the first option may seem appealing due to the fact you are only selling software and licences it does come with a number of drawbacks:

  • You may have a service provider licence programme but essentially you will look like any other software vendor and that’s a competitive market place
  • You will have to manage all software updates for the partners or customers you have, whereas if you stand up a SaaS you have centralised control
  • You will have to train the partner or customer to set up and maintain the solution. With SaaS they just have to understand the user interface
  • Badly implemented solutions are likely to reflect badly on your software, even if it’s not your software that’s at fault
  • Ultimately you lose control of your intellectual property.

Delivering as a SaaS does mean that you will have to manage the infrastructure but the service providers are more mature now and can take much of the headache away, leaving you to get on and deliver a great software service to your customers. This is where you have to make your next decision: who is going to host your service?

 

Hosting and SLAs

Different service providers offer different packaged services; from basic infrastructure, where they offer an SLA only around the resource you consume and you manage everything else, to fully managed PaaS services, which not only include the platform but could also include backup, DR and even a managed database service. The choice is down to a balance between the level of control you want and the cost of management. The next point to consider when picking your service provider is ‘will your customers have data residency issues?’ in which case does your service provider have a DC in the countries you want to trade in? Last but not least, what sort of SLA are your customers going to demand and how are you going deliver it? It’s much easier to deliver an SLA if your underlying SP has the same SLA, i.e. you want 9999 up time and your SP offers 9999 up time.  Otherwise, you have to build the extra resilience into the software, which can add considerable complexity to your solution.

 

Pricing models

So you have decided to stand up the solution and offer out SaaS and you have picked you service provider; now how do you price this service so you can make money and yet be competitive?

Let’s start with granularity under the pay as you go model. Customers only want to pay for what they use, therefore the more granular the pricing the more comfortable the customer will be. Charging for concurrent connected users is a popular model as you only pay for the software when the system is running. The final charging model will depend on the type of service you are offering. For example, if you are data mining then you are likely to have only a few connected users but consume large amounts of resource, so concurrent connected users probably won’t be profitable. The other factor that can affect granularity relates to third party software you may be using in your service. If that is priced in three-month increments then that is likely to be the limiting factor.

Next, you have to decide what to charge; you could just divide the cost by 365 days in the year, but that is not exactly ground-breaking and is unlikely to succeed in the new world of SaaS. You have to be flexible and offer innovative price plans to your customers. Here we can learn a lot from the telecom providers. If you think about it the technology is essentially the same across all the big providers and the differentiation comes with how those services are packaged to meet the different customer usage requirements. This should be the same for SaaS, as in my opinion, success in this market will rely on innovative pricing plans.

 

Access and extensibility

Unlike on-premise software solutions, you can’t offload security as someone else’s problem; you have to ensure your solution is robust enough to be exposed on a public network and meets all the industry standards required for a multi-tenant service. Remember your reputation is only as good as your first breach.

With the increased popularity of BYOD within the industry, the most successful SaaS providers offer services that are compatible across all software platforms. These not only include Mac and Windows desktops but also smart devices running on iOS and Android.

Extensibility will become key as SaaS matures. Your product is unlikely to run in isolation within a customer’s enterprise and so how you pass data in and out of your system could be the deciding factor in whether you service succeeds over the competition. As stated in my last blog, other partners will be looking to integrate your service into a cohesive business solution for their customers, so the more support you can give them, with full featured APIs and pre-packaged connectors, the greater your success will be.

 

Where is ‘value add’ going to be delivered?

With traditional solution sales, the end user often has a direct relationship with the vendor for support e.g. if a piece of EMC kit goes wrong, an EMC engineer comes out to fix it.  In an XaaS model, however, the sale is to the next link in the chain.

This is for good reason and is demonstrated in the following example. An IaaS supplier sells resource to the SaaS provider, the SaaS provider then sits their software on top of it and the integrator packages it up with other services for an end customer. As a result, when problems occur they must be traced back through the layers of service to the point of origin within the supply chain, with each provider signing off to say the issue is not within their part of the service. That being said, it’s essential to know your supply chain well and document where your responsibility starts and ends.

 

In our third blog in the SaaS series we will explore the role of the SaaS integrator. 

 

Posted under Cloud Computing

Converged infrastructure: how to address business challenges rather than talking tech

Technical Architect

Evan Unrue, EMEA Technical Architect Team Leader (VCE)

The IT infrastructure landscape has been changing for some time. Organisations are starting to explore the concept of delivering IT as a service either internally or externally to customers. One of the first steps down this path is setting up an infrastructure that is repeatable, where defining true utilisation and the cost of delivering resource can be measured.

By using the converged infrastructure approach, organisations are able to massively reduce the risk around infrastructure architecture, reduce time to service delivery and man hours involved in maintaining their infrastructure.

Key Benefits

A transformative approach to data centres leveraging converged infrastructure allows organisations to reduce complexity and risk in architecting solutions, also mitigating interoperability challenges in the planning phase. When organisations can buy their infrastructure in an appliance fashion, where the vendor has taken ownership of the complex plumbing, this allows businesses to focus on better aligning IT resources to business demands.

Typically when taking the à la carte approach to building and maintaining a data centre using silo technology stacks, larger organisations can churn 70% of IT spending simply by keeping the lights on and systems running. When IT budgets are under pressure, the challenge is in finding available budget for investing in new software and services which can really differentiate a company from its competition.

Mid Market Organisations

Converged infrastructure still plays a role in the mid market; its value is in allowing customers to promptly meet service and application requirements, while ensuring reduced design complexity and swift deployment. When the bespoke approach to infrastructure delivery is undertaken, the requirement to manage skills and interoperability across all technology stacks drives complexity. Converged infrastructure, on the other hand, enables mid market organisations to leverage an appliance approach focusing on sizing for the appropriate resource and scale, not on the nuts and bolts of how it’s held together.

When dealing with larger corporations, CXOs look to ensure rapid deployment of applications and services. This could be the difference between gaining a competitive edge or not. If a competitor gets to market first but your organisation drags its heels for six months due to the required IT rollout taking too long, your organisation is at a disadvantage. Quick delivery is key in staying ahead of the game. The mid market is slightly different in that although these companies still need to remain competitive, they often have far less robust IT teams, so simplicity of design, management and support become more of a driving factor.

Challenges

Looking at why people buy IT, private companies purchase technology to make money. In the public sector, it is to deliver services. When looking at repeatable architecture, with reduced risk and time to deployment, organisations can reduce the air gap between business and technology and stay better aligned to these objectives.

When it comes to the channel, the challenge is lining up the right skills at the right time to ensure the procurement cycle is not lengthened where it need not be.

Many partners understand how to deliver data centre solutions today and do it well. There are also many customers with a good grasp of the various technology stacks involved in IT infrastructure. However, opting for the bespoke approach to building a data centre can leave an infrastructure exposed to organic growth and hardware sprawl driving unnecessary complexity.

When leveraging converged infrastructure, you can define a building block of infrastructure design to support “X” number of users and you can understand that the power, cooling and management costs in maintaining and managing that building block are “Y”. This allows you to gain real control over the cost of delivering services, be it internally or externally.

The mid market is seemingly further along in terms of what percentage of their IT estate is virtualised, as typically there is less to virtualise. However, often this degree of virtualisation is underpinned by unbalanced infrastructure where they have remediated their existing physical estate to accommodate virtualisation. Most converged platforms are designed and taken to market specifically with virtualisation in mind, meaning that as their estate grows, they will be well equipped to deploy new servers without worrying about the infrastructure ‘falling over’.

Most mid market organisations started small; however, technology needs are constant and evolving. This growth, when driven across an unbalanced and organically grown infrastructure, culminates in infrastructure bottlenecks. Ultimately, whether on physical or virtual infrastructure, the application requirements remain the same, so when we drive the same number of applications on less hardware, we again expose ourselves to risk. Converged infrastructure allows these companies to manage the disruption that this growth creates, whilst providing balanced architecture and simple design practice to meet business demands.

Summary

The nirvana for any organisation is for IT to be an enabler, not a constraint. Taking a converged infrastructure approach can remove a lot of pain, as it’s designed with architectural simplicity in mind. In my opinion, the ability for an organisation to progress in the volatile markets of today will depend on organisations defocusing on data centre plumbing and better spending time exploring how they can differentiate themselves by rapidly bringing new services to market, giving them the edge they need.

Posted under IT infrastructure

The trends and technologies of today’s storage market

 

IT Storage specialist

Carl Berry, Business Unit Director, Open Storage, Avnet Technology Solutions UK

Intelligent data storage is an integral part of a successful business; important aspects of data storage, such as where and how data is stored, need to be taken into consideration. Recently, the storage market has experienced a rather significant transformation. It is evident that the unmistakable sudden increase in unstructured data is predominantly driven by the explosion of mobile computing in recent years; the prevalence of social media, for example, has proven to be challenging in terms of storage.

The forefront of today’s storage market

At the moment I can identify three major trends which are clearly dominant in storage solutions – pre-validated data centre platforms, flash storage arrays and big data.

  • Data centre platform: First of all, let’s look at pre-validated data centre platforms and the opportunities they present. The most important aspect of any storage solution is how easy and efficient it is to use – channel partners must make sure that they present adaptable, effective solutions that incorporate storage components into a single, flexible architecture. This offers business partners a solution with both augmented efficiencies and reduced risk. Data centre platforms with pre-validated reference architectures which include server, storage, networking and hypervisor offer extensive opportunities for professional services.
  • Flash storage arrays: The popularity of flash storage is continuing to increase in the market. Data obviously needs protecting, but at the same time, performance needs to be maximised and restrictions need to be removed. The need for this has paved the way for technology which allows performance with scale in front of existing storage architecture whilst optimising connections. So as you can see, flash storage arrays offer a great opportunity for the channel; this is an area that I think business partners really need to come to terms with and make the most of.
  • Big data: As a storage solution, big data is not just about offering volume. It ultimately allows companies to engage with customers on a more personal level, which is obviously advantageous to the company itself, its customers and to channel partners. What’s more, big data allows businesses to benefit from the simple, straightforward retrieval and use of stored information.

Making the most of opportunities

The recent impressive increase in data in the mid-market continues to improve revenue opportunities in the storage sector, such as the need for cloud-based application delivery and business analytics. Nowadays data storage solutions do not just play an important role for specialists – there is a much greater assortment of capabilities and comprehension levels from more and more channel partners. Not only this, but it has become increasingly clear that it is business requirements rather than technology lifecycles that drive storage solution sales.

Despite this, it’s important to realise that although there are now greater revenue prospects for business partners, specific training and skills are required to make the most of these new opportunities. Working with an experienced partner in this field can mean partners can get the training that’s right for them and that’s tailored to the storage market. This is essential in helping business partners to get to grips with the basics of data storage and the appropriate jargon that undeniably comes with it. Without a certain level of knowledge and training, new prospects will be missed and business partners will miss out on beneficial opportunities which could have been advantageous.

Posted under IT infrastructure, Storage