Here’s how data centers have been rigged out for the past few decades: Government IT leaders shop around, buying best of breed at the best price from whoever is selling. This satisfies taxpayers’ need to know that funds are being used efficiently, and it gives IT leaders a modicum of comfort in knowing they’ve bought the best they can afford.

This piecemeal approach comes with a price. It can take a while to tie together the parts, and even then, the many components — networking equipment, servers, storage — don’t always play nicely together. When something does stutter, vendors may pass the service buck, each insisting that the problem lies in someone else’s components.

Enter the rising star known alternately as vertical stacking, convergence or simply single-vendor purchasing. It is as it sounds: Find a single vendor that can sell you the whole system, can pretest interoperability and configure components in advance of installation. It’s an appealing notion but it, too, has potential downsides.

In vertical stacking, servers, data storage, networking equipment and software converge under a single vendor, as a single comprehensive offering. The idea behind this approach is straightforward: Pre-assembled and pre-integrated stacks of server, storage and networking gear from a single vendor are simpler for customers to install and they’ll perform better since they’re built to work together.

There is a slight subtlety here that merits note, however. “Single vendor” typically refers to the one that assembles, provides and often services the package. That doesn’t mean, though, that what’s inside the box all shares a single point of origin in that vendor’s shop.

“If you look at what is being put out there from a ‘solution stack’ approach, almost everyone has to get together with someone else,” said Bill Cassidy, CTO of IT Partners, a Tempe, Ariz.-based IT provider. “Very few people, with the exception of HP, can say they have built a solution stack with servers, software, services and management elements.

“Even in a situation where people want to look at stacks, you are really buying a pre-integrated solution, more than a single thing from a single vendor,” he said. “Someone else is doing the infrastructure work for you, but in terms of the equipment, it’s not really different from buying from multiple vendors. It is just called something else.”

One good example comes from Cisco. Along with its partner NetApp, the company has presented a “converged infrastructure” for government agencies and businesses. The company’s FlexPod integrated data center system includes Cisco Unified Computing System blade servers and Cisco Nexus switches, NetApp’s unified storage system and VMware virtualization technology. The solution has seen some government uses, serving as the underlying technology in Melrose, Mass., where it provides IT services to internal city agencies and other municipalities within the state.

In such an arrangement, while the inner workings may come from varied origins, the overall result is a seamless whole.

It’s been no small feat for Cisco to claim a leading place among today’s vertical-stack contenders. In a November 2010 report, Gartner slammed Cisco’s vision as too pricey and proprietary. Recently Cisco fired back, commissioning Deloitte Consulting to investigate the field.

Deloitte’s report came back with positive news for proponents of the single-vendor method, starting with the finding that single vendor costs no more than a heterogeneous approach. “Within the context of total IT spending, the use of single-vendor or multivendor architectures does not present material cost differences on a long-term basis,” the analysts found.

Multivendor may cost less up front, but ongoing operating costs will eat up the savings, Deloitte said, adding that “higher operating risk in service, support and operational integration” along with “additional operational risk based on the need for customers to assume increased risks for integration, interoperability and support.”

(Most of Deloitte’s surveyed customers were organizations with networks between 2,000 and 10,000 users, with a three-tier network, multiple distribution sites and more than 30 remote sites.)

Others have seen the financial scales tip in favor of single vendor. A 2012 IDC white paper looked at deployments of Vblock Infrastructure Platforms from VCE. Respondents said new infrastructure deployments went from five weeks to one week and staff time to configure/test/deploy fell by 75 percent.

The jury’s still out on the financial side, however, with no clear signal from either analysts or vendors. That being the case, what other factors might mitigate in favor of single vendor?

For government users, single vendor means less time shopping around, said Peter Doolan, vice president and chief technologist of Oracle Public Sector. The company has been a proponent of vertical stacking since its acquisition of server vendor Sun Microsystems in 2010 and has released several vertically integrated data center solutions. Buying multiple components can take months, “and that takes contracting officers. You are paying a lot of back-office people to be pushing a lot of paper,” Doolan said.

The single-vendor approach also eases the pain of integration. “You get a much easier process to consume technological change. There are just fewer moving parts,” Doolan said.

Overall, single-vendor solutions guarantee a level of system integrity, said John Fitzgerald, CTO of Dell Federal. “You can put in a process and say, ‘This is how we are going to do it,’ including a process for new applications coming in. You have a process that says, ‘If you want to plug it into our back end, here’s a quick process to go through. If you want to color outside the lines, here’s a vetting process you have to go through to prove that you really have to have this.’”

Arguments in favor of vertical stack purchasing include:

  • Faster deployment. For government managers trying to shop around for best-of-breed can be daunting. “There’s never enough money, never enough skilled individuals to be able to get things stood up in a timely way,” said Sandy Krawchuk, vice president of government accounts for IBM’s Systems and Technology Group.
  • Technology viability. Heterogeny doesn’t work anymore because technology has become too intricate and intertwined, Doolan said. “Each of these technologies has gotten more and more complex. Every vendor in that market is competing on a feature function war, so that over time all of these pieces get more and more complex,” while becoming more and more tightly integrated. “If something goes wrong, you have to get all those vendors together on the phone, and each of these vendors may have another third party beneath the covers who they have leveraged,” he said.
  • Less distraction. A piecemeal system can cause managers to spend too much time shopping and not enough time managing. In a study by systems integrator Kovarus, only 38 percent of IT professionals surveyed said they specifically make investment decisions based on true alignment and value to the business. Maybe the rest are shopping for features, or maybe for price. Either way, a lack of cohesive implementation seems to be distracting some in IT from the importance of a business-first approach.
  • Better use of resources. Cisco estimates that 75 percent of IT time and resources in a nonconverged infrastructure go toward management and maintenance, with just 25 percent support of noncore services. Presumably the comprehensive management approach of a converged system would help to tip those numbers the other way.

This is building up to be a slam dunk for convergence but the fact is, nothing is ever that simple. The single-vendor approach to data center infrastructure inevitably comes with its own set of caveats and concerns.

The most widely recognized concern regarding single-vendor purchasing has to do with the prospect of being trapped. As big, reputable and competitive as any given basket may be, IT leaders have an almost instinctive fear of putting all their eggs in it.

With the habit of competitive shopping long ingrained (and for many in government, mandated as well) the prospect of one-stop shopping is anathema.

“If you are buying it all from one vendor, lock-in becomes a huge problem,” said Andi Mann, vice president of strategic solutions at CA Technologies. “If the vendor you have chosen decides to stop supporting the box you bought, or decides to raise the prices, you can’t just swap out the storage. It’s all one big box.”

The same goes for licensing. If terms change for a particular license, but that license is tied up inside a whole bundle of hardware and software, it’s not hard to imagine that the government user will lose some negotiating power. But there’s a hedge against this: Stay with a single vendor, but mix it up a bit. “Rather than get 100 functions from one vendor that combines three other vendors, you get 70 percent from two vendors working as a partnership, then use their infrastructure to determine what you need and what you don’t for the rest,” Mann said. “You make it more customized to your environment, and you avoid some of that lock-in.”

In the end, perhaps the greatest concern about single vendor comes on the application front. For government users, the point here is not to build systems, but to get the work done.

“All that really matters to the government consumer is the applications,” Cassidy said. “Very few of the converged vendors actually produce the applications in question. Anything they are advocating comes from them working in partnership with someone, some other application.”

Bottom line: Don’t get caught up in the hype. Even if the components mesh seamlessly, even if it’s all been pretested and preconfigured, IT purchasing still comes down to functionality. The hardware may sing and dance, but if the software doesn’t perform, you haven’t got a show.

Adam Stone  |  Contributing Writer