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It’s not that IT employees are especially cynical, but their finely tuned “fluff detectors” tend to activate when a fuzzily-defined technology term starts appearing everywhere.  The sudden proliferation of words like “Cloud,” “Big Data,” or “as a Service” invites suspicion that marketing folks have latched on to the term as a way to attract attention to their products and services.  Perhaps there’s more sizzle than meat.

So what about “software-defined,” the latest darling of the tech media?  We are being surrounded by news of Software-Defined Networks, Software-Defined Storage, and now Software-Defined Data Centers.  Is it hype, or truly transformational?

Don’t let the growing use of the phrase fool you.  Like Cloud, like Big Data, like “as a Service,” the Software-Defined Data Center (SDDC) is not only real, but it is changing the way businesses run.  In fact, SDDC may be a rare case where the “hype” understates its actual importance in shaping the IT organization of the future.

The SDDC concept is deceptively simple.  In an SDDC, intelligence for all infrastructure components—servers, network, storage—resides in software, not hardware.   SDDC builds on virtualization technology, which has been around for decades and has recently become standard practice for data center configurations.  Server virtualization is utilized by more than half of all business and nearly all cloud providers; the easily replicable and movable “virtual machine” or VM is becoming a common to deploy both Windows and Linux-based applications.  Server virtualization is also the basis to private cloud deployments.

In addition to servers, an increasing number and type of other infrastructure elements are increasingly being virtualized (that is, the intelligence is abstracted from the physical appliance).  Virtualized networking components, such as routers, WAN optimization controllers, and application delivery appliances; virtualized security components, such as firewalls; and even virtual desktops are being included in more IT configurations.  In these cases, virtualization offers the ability to consolidate hardware and optimize capacity allocation, thus deferring capital expenditures. It also can support business continuity plans:  virtualized workloads can easily be moved among existing server infrastructure, allowing hardware maintenance or refreshes to proceed without interrupting availability.

But even in a private cloud environment, component-based virtualization falls well short of a true SDDC.  After all, few data center components work independently; delivering an application or workload requires coordination of all infrastructure elements.  In a traditional data center environment, someone (which is to say, your overburdened techs) has to manually coordinate the virtualized and non-virtualized elements.   Need to add capacity to handle higher demand for a customer-facing application?   The virtual machine containing the application may be fairly easy to replicate and move to a server with spare capacity.  But then you have to configure the load balancer.  And add network capacity.  And apply security profiles. And be sure the associated storage is configured properly.  And the backup schedule is updated.  And the management systems are updated.  And the entire workload is tested, tweaked, and retested until it works seamlessly.  Which it may not do until the workload has been in production for months.

The upshot is that the instant scalability you expected from your virtualized or cloud environment comes with an embarrassingly long timeline – assuming you even have available staff-hours to invest to get it right.  Which falls far short of the “business agility” you likely promised senior management and line of business colleagues when you initiated the project.

That’s where an SDDC makes the difference.  In an SDDC, not only are all infrastructure components (servers, storage, network) virtualized, but they are orchestrated through a powerful platform that ensures the components work together.  In an SDDC, functions are automated end-to-end, so that deploying or scaling an application triggers appropriate workflows across all infrastructure components.

The right SDDC foundation can increase the value of your virtualized data center or private or hybrid cloud.  In fact, it can help IT deliver on the promises you made to the business:   agility, scalability, cost-effectiveness, on-demand resource utilization, and process optimization.  By ensuring consistent quality and predictable provisioning times, an SDDC will allow IT to support service level agreements for line of business colleagues.  Finally, an SDDC provides a building block to a service-oriented IT model.

SDDC is a whole lot more than the “IT word du jour.”  It is the logical model for creating and delivering IT resources quickly, efficiently, cost-effectively, and securely.  And in a hypercompetitive, technology fueled economy, SDDC will soon become the standard for successful businesses.

For more information on bolstering your business with an SDDC foundation, check out our on-demand webcast, The Data Center Revolution: Making the Journey to IT as a Service with a Software-Defined Data Centers, or visit the VMware website.

Lynda Stadtmueller, Program Director, Stratecast Cloud Services
Stratecast, Frost and Sullivan