VCE vBlock – 1st Year in Review


Well we have just passed a year of vBlock ownership and the last year has passed rather painlessly.

Our vBlock was one of the first out there, delivered in November 2011. I wanted to provide some pros and cons of vBlock ownership. Some of the themes are not vBlock specific, but worth bearing in mind because there will always be a gap between what you hear from pre-sales and what the reality is.

Pros:

VCE – The company has been constantly improving which is good to see. Not content to rest on their laurels, they really have grabbed the bull by the horns and they are innovating in a lot of areas.

vBlock – The concept of the vBlock itself deserves a mention. VCE are definitely on the right path… it’s like the first generation Model T Ford. I’m sure old Henry had hundred’s of suppliers that provided the components for his Model T and he came along with the assembly line production and he put it all together. This is like what is happening over at VCE. Over time I’m hoping that the integration between components will become more and more seamless as the demand for pre-configured virtualisation platforms grows and grows and the designers behind each of the components are forced to work closer together.

Management and Support – If you have a bloated IT support team in large sprawling organisation, a vBlock can help reduce your head count by simplifying your environment. One thing converged infrastructure platforms are good for, is breaking down the traditional support silos with regards to storage, network, compute, virtualisation. When all the components are so tightly integrated, your silo’d operations team morphs into one.

Compatibility Matrix – This has to be the biggest selling point in my book. Taking away the pain of ensuring compatibility between so many different components. The VCE matrix is far more stringent than individual vendor product testing and therefore far more trust worthy. Try getting a complete infrastructure upgrade over a single weekend across storage, network, compute and virtualisation components through your change management team. It’s not going to happen unless it’s been pre-tested.

Single line of support – Being able to call a single number when there is any issue, immensely simplifies fault finding and problem resolution. Worth it alone just for this and the matrix.

Single pain of glass – This is where UIMp is starting to come into its own. It’s been a long road, but the future looks good. VCE’s goal is to replace each of the individual management consoles so that VCE customers can use UIMp for all their automated provisioning. When it works, it really does simplify provisioning.

Customer Advocate – In my experience the customer advocate offers great value. Extremely useful when managing high severity incidents and ensuring your environment remains up to date and in support, with regular services reviews and providing an easy path into VCE to organise training sessions, bodies to fill gaps in support, provide direct line of contact to escalation engineers and just deal with any queries and questions you may have about your environment.

Cons:

The AMP – the major design flaw in the AMP for me is the 1GB network. Data transfers between VMs in our 10GB service cluster can achieve 300 Mbps; as soon as the AMP is involved it drops to 30Mbps. Really annoying and what is in the AMP? vCenter, which is used to import virtual machines. Let’s say you are doing a migration of 1000 VMs for example… that 30Mbps is going to get really annoying and it has.

Cost – The vBlock hardware isn’t so bad, but what really surprised me is the amount of and cost of the licenses. Want to add a UCS Blade? No problem, that will be £5k for the blade and about £3k for the licenses – UCS, UIMp, VNX, vSphere,  etc. It all adds up pretty quickly. Ensuring you adequately size your UCS blades up front, i.e. plenty of memory and CPU is really important.

Management & Support – Converged Infrastructure Platforms require a lot of ongoing support and management. This is an issue not limited to VCE. It’s just the nature of the beast. If you have  an immature IT organisation and have had a fairly piecemeal IT infrastructure and support team up until now, you will be in for a shock when you purchase a converged infrastructure platform. There’s no doubt a vBlock is an excellent product, but it’s excellent because it uses the latest and greatest, which can be complex. It also comprises multiple products  from 3 different vendors – EMC, Cisco and VMware, so you need the right skillset to manage it, which can be expensive to find and train. It takes at least a year for someone to become familiar with all components of the vBlock. You’re always going to have employees with core skills like virtualisation, storage, network, compute, etc, but you do want people to broaden their skills and be comfortable with the entire stack.

Integration between products – See above, multiple products from 3 different vendors. At the moment the VCE wrapper is just that, little more than a well designed wrapper, lots of testing and a single line of support. Ok, so EMC own VMware, but it seems to make little difference. EMC can’t even align products within their own company, how on earth can they expect to align products with a subsidiary?  If the vBlock is going to be a single vendor product, then all 3x vendors need to invest in closer co-operation to align product lifecycles and integration. VMware release vCenter 5.1 and Powerpath have to release an emergency patch to support it? Going back to my Model T analogy, the vBlock is never going to become a real Model T until Cisco buys EMC or EMC drop Cisco and start making the compute\network components. Not so far fetched.

Complexity – The VCE wrapper hasn’t changed the complexity. (This is the same with HP or Flexpod.) This is another myth. “We’ve made it simple!”. Er, no, you haven’t. You’ve just done all the design work and testing for us. Until the integration above takes places, which will allow for simplification of the overall package its going to remain just a wrapper and it’s still going to remain an extremely complex piece of kit. VCE have focused efforts on improving UIMp to simplify vBlock provisioning and to simplify vBlock management through a single interface but really these are just band aids if the individual components are made by separate companies.

Patching – Even though there is a compatibility matrix, which does the integration and regression testing for you, it still doesn’t take away the pain\effort of actually deploying the patches. Having a vBlock doesn’t mean there is no patching required. This is a common pre-sales myth, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll do all the patching for you.’ Sure, but at what cost? Security patches, bug fixes and feature enhancements come out more or less monthly and this has to be factored in to your budget and over time costs.

Monitoring and Reporting – This is a pain and I know there are plans afoot at VCE to simplify this, but currently there is no single management point you can query to monitor the vitals of a vBlock. If you want to know the status of UCS: UCS manager, VNX: Unisphere, ESXi: vCenter, etc. For example, you buy VCOps but that only plugs into vCenter, so you are only aware of what resources vCenter has been assigned. To get a helicopter view of the entire vBlock from a single console is impossible. UIMp gives you a bit of a storage overview: available vs provisioned, but does not give you much more than that. So you end up buying these tactical solutions for each of the individual components, like VNX Monitoring and Reporting. Hopefully soon we will be able to query a single device and get up to date health checks and alerting for all vBlock components.

Niggles – There have been a few small niggles, mainly issues between vCenter/Cisco 1000V and vCenter/VNX 7500 but overall for the amount of kit we purchased it has not been bad. I think a lot of these issues had to do with vCenter 5\ESXi 5. As soon as Upgrade 1 came out, everything settled down. Note to self don’t be quick up upgrade to vCenter 6/ESXi 6!

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Site visit to VCE


I recently had the pleasure of spending some time at the EMC Factory in Cork, Ireland where vBlocks are assembled for the EMEA region.

The full name as shown at the entrance below is the ‘EMC Ireland Centre of Excellence’… not sure what a Centre of Excellence is but I guess it sounds better than the EMC Ireland Factory.

EMC Entrance

I cant think of many adjectives that do the size of the factory justice – gargantuan springs to mind. Visiting the EMC factory must be every storage engineers wet dream. A couple of football fields worth of every bit of EMC storage kit you can imagine.

The purpose of the visit was to spend time with the VCE team while they complete the logical configuration of the vBlock 300HX for our client’s main data centres. This involved trying not to get in their way as all the components were configured and trying to assimilate as much information as possible about the AMP Cluster, VNXe, the VNX 7500, UCS Manager, Service Profiles, IONIX UIM and Unisphere.

Once the vBlock order has been raised, the first week is usually spent with physical assembly. Weeks 2 and 3 are spent doing the logical configuration before the vBlocks get shipped to site in the 4th week, meeting the 30 day lead time. As 95% of the configuration is done onsite at EMC the time required at each client site is minimal. This usually involves DOA testing to make sure there has been no damage during transit, integration with the clients aggregation network and then a thorough test plan where every components is pulled, badgered and poked to stress test every possible failure scenario to ensure all parts are acting as required.

Not wanting to get anyone in trouble, I obviously couldn’t take any photos even though the urge was overwhelming. I did however recognise this picture on the web. All vBlocks outside the North America region were assembled in the hallowed turf shown in the picture below.

VCE Entrance

And lastly I must add that even though this was my first visit to a Centre of Excellence, I was pleasantly surprised at the local talent.