HP's 'convergence' theme faces IT lock-in fears

HP tells users that its approach can lower costs, but the catch is that it may work best with HP products

LAS VEGAS -- Hewlett-Packard Co. this week continued its effort to convince its enterprise customers to cross what may be IT's Rubicon and embrace the idea that one vendor can meet all of your infrastructure needs.

Many enterprises deliberately follow at least a dual-vendor enterprise strategy to maintain negotiating leverage. That's why HP's "converged infrastructure" theme dominating the company's major technology conference here this week may be a hard sell.

HP is still pumping out new servers, storage tools, networking gear and services, but what it appears to be emphasizing the most are the efficiencies gained by the tight integration of its systems.

HP officials are aware that users fear single-vendor solutions. It's not unreasonable for users to ask, "If I go to a converged infrastructure, will I get locked in?" said Dave Donatelli, the vendor's executive vice president and general manager of enterprise servers, storage and networking. However, he argued that HP's infrastructure is built on open standards so customers "can change out whatever they like."

HP's approach in convincing customers to adopt -- and keep -- its technology is more subtle. Customers that use HP servers and storage and networking equipment get software tools that will likely work better with HP products than they do with systems from rival vendors.

The advantage of HP's "converged infrastructure" may be the benefits that arise from the use of the sum total of the HP product set -- particularly a reduction in maintenance costs through automation. Customers who integrate other vendors' products into their infrastructures may have to make trade-offs in capability.

HP's approach works for some people, including Merritte Stidston, director of data center strategy and operations at McKesson Corp., a provider of health care IT products and services. He has responsibility for a 9,600-square-foot raised-floor data center that supports McKesson's software development efforts. He's aware of user concerns about convergence, but he asked himself this: "How else are you ever going to do this?"

"What is the alternate idea that you have to make this happen? There isn't one," Stidston said. "You can keep doing it the old way, which is to keep sticking separate components in there -- but each one of the those components is a fail point."

HP this week announced its third-generation blade server management system, Matrix, whose new features include server automation capabilities. That new functionality allows users to set up an application infrastructure quickly, and it uses templates that determine, for instance, the number of uses, level of performance and security for a particular application.

Stidston is moving his data center to HP's blade servers, but he believes that he still needs to carefully analyze other vendors' proposals. For example, he says providers of cloud-based systems could offer viable alternatives.

"Cloud computing, technically, is very feasible," said Stidston. "[But] in this day and age, when you start applying what you need to rigorously run an enterprise, there's a ways to go before we can get there."

Tim Parsley, manager of IT infrastructure at Evergreen Healthcare in Kirkland, Wash., says he can see a lot of upsides to HP's approach, but a downside as well.

"I see it as 'I bury myself into HP and I can't move out.' And if I do move out it's extremely expensive, unless [HP] opens it up to work with everything," Parsley said.

Parsley doesn't see a reason to have a single infrastructure vendor. Three years ago, his company evaluated storage products from HP, EMC, Hitachi, and Pillar Data Systems Inc., comparing performance, cost and other attributes. Evergreen picked Pillar as its SAN and NAS storage provider because that vendor's offerings best met the health care company's business needs, he said.

Evergreen uses HP servers, and while Parsley said he sees the benefits of the deeper integration possible with an all-HP setup, he believes the Pillar systems that he uses for storage get the job done.

Ultimately, the realities of the modern enterprise may represent the biggest obstacle that HP faces when it tries to promote its converged infrastructure.

Steve Vollmer, chief technology officer and vice president of IT at The Las Vegas Sands Corp., is a fan of HP products, particularly its networking equipment, which, he says, has a total cost of ownership that's only half that of competing systems.

"I've never had anything fail here," said Vollmer of HP's networking gear. To illustrate the point, he says he has a 13-year-old HP switch that "has not had a fan on it for five years" and refuses to quit.

But it's hard not to notice the racks of Dell servers when you stand inside one of the data centers at the Venetian hotel and casino, a Sands property in Las Vegas. The company also use many IBM System I computers.

"I'm a public company, and I got to answer to investors. When we buy servers, we evaluate them very carefully -- we look at their performance and we look at their support," said Vollmer. "Dell has super support. So does HP, but Dell is winning the bids in the United States."

The casino operator does use HP servers as well as Dell systems. For example, HP servers run the IT systems in a company casino and resort in Singapore. Referring to the diversity of systems, Vollmer says, "that's how I buy."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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