Does Hardware Matter Anymore?

Has anyone else noticed that nobody talks about hardware these days?

To be sure, there’s plenty to discuss when it comes to expanding data center performance and driving operational efficiency, but the real gains in both of these areas are happening on the virtual and application layers, not raw iron.

This is a departure from the past, considering that much of IT history has been marked by pent-up demand for the next hardware upgrade followed by a mad scramble to push the envelope again. Nowadays, the focus is on consolidating hardware infrastructure to cut energy consumption even while pursuing the latest prize: cloud computing.

It’s almost as if the software community has finally found a world it can live in, at least for a while. Of course, this begs the question: Does hardware matter anymore? Have we embarked on an enterprise path that will continue to drive innovation and productivity for the foreseeable future but within the boundaries of the current physical world?

Some will surely argue not, but let’s take a look at the evidence. There hasn’t been a notable server platform upgrade in years, save perhaps IBM’s iDataPlex machine. While this does power the company’s CloudBurst platform, it’s more of a tricked-out System x than an all-new hardware environment. HP, meanwhile, just launched the new CloudSystem on the same BladeSystem portfolio that powered the earlier static infrastructure. Meanwhile, newcomers like GigaSpaces and Platform Computing are rewriting the IT rules by delivering platform-independent cloud environments promising to deliver the next generation of enterprise computing using existing enterprise infrastructure.

Promises are cheap, of course, so it’s fair to say that many enterprises still lack the infrastructure needed to support such fluid, dynamic environments. And in that sense, yes, hardware upgrades, primarily universal 10 GbE, will probably be necessary for many organizations. But it’s not like we have to wait for a new generation of hardware to achieve that, just the cash flow to make it happen.

And since we’re on the subject of networking, it’s worth noting that here, too, much of the action is on the protocol level, not the hardware level. Witness initiatives like IBM’s Open FCoE stack and Extreme Networks’ M-LAG direct attached architecture, which seek to drive efforts like network consolidation and unified communications, on standard 10 GbE architecture – no need for next-gen 40 or 100 G technology.

Hardware devotees will say that nothing happens – not virtualization, the cloud or IT itself – without hardware. True enough, but that’s kind of like saying you can’t build a skyscraper without a solid piece of ground. The real achievement is the architecture that allows the skyscraper to stand, not the quality of the soil.

So in the end, I will admit that, yes Virginia, hardware still matters. But for the moment at least, it plays the supporting role to software in the drive toward enhanced enterprise capabilities.

Maybe those roles will switch back some day, but I think it’s going to be a while.

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