Will HPE Synergy change the way we think about servers?

HPE Synergy

HPE Synergy is a new kind of "composable" infrastructure

Credit: HPE

Composable infrastructure, designed to treat hardware like software, could be the next big thing for the enterprise data center.

There are big shifts happening in enterprise data centers right now to simplify the way applications are deployed and to reduce technology complexity in order to better serve the business. To address the need for simplicity, many in the industry are beginning to look at “infrastructure as code” deployment approaches that are made possible by an emerging category of products called composable infrastructure. Companies like Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Intel have each disclosed their own plans for bringing composable infrastructure solutions to market. (Disclosure: Cisco, HPE and Intel are clients of Moor Insights & Strategy.) 

HPE announced their multi-phased plan for composable infrastructure in June 2015 called Project Synergy and announced a Phase 1 focus on software and partner ecosystem enablement. Earlier this month, I attended HPE Discover in London where HPE announced Phase 2 of their plan which included their first generation composable infrastructure system called HPE Synergy that will begin shipping in Q2 2016.

At a very high level, composable infrastructure is designed to treat hardware like software by allowing IT to manage “infrastructure as code.” Infrastructure that can be defined by software lets an IT administrator allocate the right amount of infrastructure pools of resources (compute, storage, memory, I/O) needed to optimize application performance. Vendors promoting composable infrastructure solutions say this approach will help IT lower total infrastructure costs, provide flexibility as resource needs change and allow companies to get to market faster with their business-critical applications.

When I initially analyzed HPE’s Project Synergy announcement in June, I thought HPE may be behind the boat compared to some of its competitors on their composable infrastructure strategy. I had a chance to attend HPE Discover earlier this month where the HPE Synergy Platform was announced and spent a lot of time talking to HPE’s customers, partners and employees about the product. Based on all of those discussions, it is clear to me now that HPE Synergy is real and something that HPE has been working on in stealth mode for many, many years. Customers appear engaged, excited and ready to figure out which applications may be the best fit for testing out HPE Synergy. 

While there are many layers to HPE’s Project Synergy, here are the top three things that caught my attention with the latest announcement:

1. The market for composable infrastructure is in its infancy

With the wide range of customer environments and applications out there, only a small number of IT organizations will jump on the composable infrastructure bandwagon at this early stage. I expect to see a multi-year transition to composable infrastructure. During this transition, IT will be managing a mix of environments that range from traditional rack or blade servers, converged/hyperconverged products and composable infrastructure solutions. 

Enterprise data centers and cloud providers will likely prioritize those applications that could benefit from a self-service, flexible approach to application provisioning as the first to potentially move to composable infrastructure. The ROI levers and capex vs. opex tradeoffs will vary greatly for each application and specific environment. It will be important for HPE to leverage their broad product portfolio strategy to position HPE Synergy only for a subset of customer use cases while providing a choice of other platform approaches where composable infrastructure may not be the right fit today.

2. HPE has a comprehensive strategy and offering

HPE’s multi-phased investment in Project Synergy clearly shows they are serious about bringing a comprehensive, composable infrastructure solution to market over the long-term. HPE Synergy includes server (compute), storage and networking (fabric) capability all in one rack, and clearly was purpose-built for composability. HPE laid the groundwork for the systems management of HPE Synergy back in 2013 when they launched HPE OneView Management platform which is allows customers to manage all of their server, storage and networking resources under the same umbrella. OneView is leveraged by the Synergy framework as the single interface point that allows customers to compose all of the physical and virtual resources in the system.

In addition, HPE Synergy leverages application specific templates which allows infrastructure to be deployed and consistently updated. I think it will be critical for HPE to leverage its own services organization and channel partners to add value on top of the Synergy hardware platform by fine-tuning these templates to make it easy for customers deploy composable infrastructure in a way that meets the needs of each of their applications.

3. The ecosystem is critical

Enterprises don't want to trade one lock-in for another and it's important that best of breed hardware and software componentry can play in the Synergy system. It is clear to me that HPE recognizes the importance of the ecosystem which is why Phase 1 of Project Synergy was focused on software ecosystem enablement. HPE has built a unified API that allows IT organizations to leverage standard management tools, devops frameworks (such as Chef and Puppet) and their hypervisors/containers of choice. Independent Software Vendors (ISVs) and Independent Hardware Vendors (IHVs) write to the API as well.

I believe the long-term viability of composable infrastructure will require vendors to ultimately come together better to encourage cross-platform support. HPE says that Synergy will support the use of third party storage and networking platforms via plug-ins to take advantage of composability capabilities, and in fact, demoed Arista integrated into Synergy. HPE and others will need to demonstrate real-world use cases where multi-vendor environments can live in harmony as unified composable pools of resources in order to prove that customers will not be locked into one specific hardware platform.

A market transition to composable infrastructure is not going to happen overnight.  Vendors in this space will need to have the patience to work closely with customers, ISVs and IHVs to identify those workloads that can best take advantage of the benefits of composability. I think vendors with broad portfolios that position composable as just one arrow in their quiver will be in a good position to wait out the market transition and offer a range of choices that customers will need for each of their workloads. I look forward to seeing which customers begin to test out and see benefit from HPE Synergy. In addition, I will be paying close attention future phases of HPE’s market enablement with Project Synergy as they move toward their long term vision of composability via HPE’s Machine architecture.

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