IT Appliances in Enterprises
The term appliances bring to mind the electrical / mechanical appliances like Washing Machine and toaster we use at homes. The key characteristics of these appliances are that they are simple to use, reliable and are typically not serviceable by the owner. The same concept of these house-hold Appliances when applied to enterprise level, led to IT appliances. Compared to General purpose machines, the appliances are highly specialized and optimized devices designed to handle specific tasks efficiently and effectively.
The term “Information Appliance” is coined as early as 1979 by Jef Raskin who left Apple to form his own company Information Appliance Inc.
Though people do not tend to think explicitly of appliances in an Enterprise context, appliances have been in the Enterprise for quite a long time. Most enterprises today, use the special purpose routers from CISCO and Nortel and general purpose computers are rarely used for packet routing. These routers are nothing but Appliances that are physical and designed to do a single function efficiently and effectively. Load Balancers, Proxy caches, SSL accelerators are other appliances that have long been part of the IT infrastructure.
In an Enterprise context, a computer appliance is basically a self-contained IT system that can be plugged into an existing IT infrastructure to carry out a single purpose. The appliance’s purpose could be to provide additional processing power, storage, monitoring or security.
Network, Storage and Security are the areas where appliances are widely used at Enterprises level. Storage appliances perform storage-related functions including backups, storage management, license management, encryption, access control and availability management. A range of Network appliances are in vogue including network fax servers, router, back-up servers and network monitors. Variety of security appliances that offer firewalls, anti-virus scanning, content filtering, anti-spamming, intrusion detection, penetration testing, vulnerability assessment, remote authentication, VPN Gateway are heavily used by Enterprises.
These appliances are designed in such a way that they are decoupled and centralized and hence can be shared among many systems. They can be expanded, managed and optimized without any other system in the data center to be changed. In effect, the purpose-built nature of appliances translate to significant benefits like stability, ease-of-use, reliability, security, simplicity, ease of deployment and administration.
With success of these, another category of server appliances called the “compute” appliances that offload specific computing operations to a dedicated device came up. Java applications got re-hosted transparently to Java appliances that use techniques like pauseless Garbage collection, Optimistic Thread concurrency enabling optimal performance of Java applications. Similarly SOA appliances that simplify, secure and accelerate XML and web services deployments are widely used.
With mobile technology becoming all pervasive, the industry experienced the rise of handheld appliances used by mobile workers in various industries. These handheld information appliances were specially designed and are typically custom-built for the task they had to perform – leading to significant improvement in customer relationship and employee productivity.
Data Warehousing Appliances and Integration Appliances that offer an entire suite of functions – from both niche vendors like Greenplum, Vertica, Cast Iron as well as from established vendors like Oracle, IBM, Microsoft started flooding the market.
Data warehousing appliances comprised integrated set of servers, storage, OS, DBMS and software specially pre-installed and pre-optimized for Data Warehousing and offers the scalability, flexibility, workload management and other features required to support Enterprise Data Warehouse functions (EDW). Data and Process Integration appliances offer data and process integration between transactional systems or between transactional and report systems and are sophisticated enough to play the role of Enterprise Service Bus (ESB) due to their strong routing, mediation, transformation and protocol-switching capabilities.
With Appliances getting more sophisticated, they started including a customized operating system, database etc. running over specialized hardware. This trend is against the traditional wisdom of letting the application focus on the function and be able to run on any OS, DB or hardware. But this is the price that has to be paid for the optimization achieved. Also in reality, these appliances do not mean development of a new OS or DB. As Forrester points out, these machines are assembled from fairly standard parts; tweaks are made in such a way as to be optimal for the chosen set of work with lot of built-in redundancy so as to be self-contained. In addition, better security is achieved as the vendor pre-hardens the solution against known security vulnerabilities as well as the complete visibility of the appliance enabled the vendor to identify and fix security risks that arise from time to time.
The vendors tried to flood the enterprise with appliances in 2000; and again in 2007 offering everything from single function operations to completely integrated applications. In spite of all the advantages of appliances, Enterprise IT didn’t take to it in a big way – except in case of Infrastructure, or where specialized requirements on security or mobility that made appliances necessary.
The lack of Enterprises full-fledged support can be traced to multiple reasons – the idea of using hardware from various vendors for single purposes meant specific arrangements made for each; the non-serviceability was seen as a issue when consolidation / standardization were the themes; concern about possible vendor lock-in and potentially leading to overpriced appliances; hardware replacement costs in case of problems appearing to overthrow the cost advantage of using appliance; and lack of integrated management features across appliances from multiple vendors leading to a out-of-control data center.
As Hardware Virtualization matured, a new breed of appliances called “virtual appliances” which enable leveraging the benefit of an appliance without the hardware has emerged. These virtual appliances address many of the blockades to physical appliances and coupled with Cloud computing provide an enticing option to Enterprises. Appliances market which till now has been in a push mode – where the vendors are pushing their products, we can now expect that Enterprises would actively consider adopting appliances as part of their IT landscape.