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Integrated Systems Poised for Astonishing Growth

IDC says sales of integrated infrastructure—pre-configured bundles of compute, networking and storage—will total $3 billion in 2013 and grow 50% a year over the next half decade.

Corporate data centers have begun a significant shift in the way they buy hardware, according to a market-research study from IDC published this week.

Rather than buying servers, networking equipment, storage hardware, management software and peripherals separately and then assembling the pieces into custom configurations, data centers will increasingly buy all those elements in a single package. IDC predicts that sales of "integrated infrastructure and platforms" will total $3 billion this year, and increase by 50% each year for the next five years.

That's an astonishing rate of growth, especially for relatively high-end datacenter systems.

If you built a line graph from the table below, the growth curve would be a line shooting upwards at 45 degrees – a level of growth that's impossible to sustain for more than a couple of years without cannibalizing from other market segments.

2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
$3 billion $4.5 billion $6.75 billion $10.12 billion $15.88 billion

Sales of traditional data-center hardware--purchased unconfigured and unintegrated--will increase at a rate in the "mid-single digits," according to the report.

Major vendors have products ready for this market. For instance, VCE, the company spun out of a consortium of Cisco, EMC and VMware, offers integrated compute/network/storage bundles called Vblocks. This February, the company announced new Vblock models that target small and medium enterprises. IBM, HP and Dell also offer integrated systems, including Dell's ActiveSystem brand.

The growth of integrated platforms comes from data center managers who want their systems optimized for specific applications – with all the right storage, memory, bandwidth and the rest of the requirements – and for systems that are easier to deploy, manage and use.

This growth may also be driven by the current state of IT staffing. Rather than going for optimum performance by picking best-of-breed products and tuning them to get just the characteristics that would help a heavily customized application run efficiently, corporate data centers are buying integrated bundles because they don't have enough people available to assemble and configure the systems by hand.

If a company can get decent performance out of a system they can set up while being permanently short-staffed, what's the harm?

The data center has been battered by hiring freezes, headcount reductions and the reapportionment of data center technical experts into application support, virtualization management or other positions in which a new server can be had in minutes for the trouble of spinning it up from a golden image.

After more than a decade of virtualization and cloud computing and mobile/wireless, even data center experts may have gotten used to the idea that technology can be easy to buy and use while also being adequately functional.

This represents a shift in how data center people should think of themselves, though. If their companies are part of the integration movement, it's not just best-of-breed procurement that will fade away. So will the role of--and respect for--technical gurus who can keep data centers running at full speed using little more than wire clippers and a multipoint screwdriver.

People with those skills will always be valuable, but the companies willing to pay salaries genuinely commensurate with such expertise won't be corporations running their own datacenters. It will be the hosting companies and cloud providers and vendors selling integrated systems. Kevin Fogarty is a freelance writer covering networking, security, virtualization, cloud computing, big data and IT innovation. His byline has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, CNN.com, CIO, Computerworld, Network World and other leading IT publications. View Full Bio

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