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Q&A: Interview with @Cirba, Talking Software-Defined Technologies

With, what seems like, everything new in the IT world being labeled as software-defined this or that, I thought we would take a step back and find out more about this software-defined phenomenon.  To do that, I spoke with Andrew Hillier, co-founder and CTO of Cirba, a company that has grown over the years and has become a provider of software-defined infrastructure control solutions.  Andrew and Cirba have been around the cloud and virtualization markets for quite some time, and we've had many discussions over the years about virtualization.  So I was fortunate to catch up with him once again to dig in and hear more about things like the importance of intelligent control and management of the software-defined data center.

VMblog:  What exactly does Software-Defined mean?

Andrew Hillier:  Software-defined, in our view, describes IT hosting strategies and infrastructure whose behavior and operational parameters can be altered programmatically through software, reducing or eliminating the need for special-purpose hardware and/or application-specific physical configurations. This isn't to say that all apps need to converge on a vanilla set of hosting requirements, but rather that the hosting infrastructure can automatically be made fit-for-purpose for the specific application demands placed on it. This increases agility and reduces manual effort by enabling higher levels of policy-based management and automation.

VMblog:  What is your view on the whole Software-Defined trend?

Hillier:  There is clearly a lot of hype around everything software-defined, and while it makes complete sense for technology to progress in this way, organizations need to be careful. There are immediate benefits when adopting specific technologies to provide more flexibility and programmability, but they also bring complexity that needs to be managed. We saw this with virtualization, which is essentially software-defined compute, and the entry point for many organizations into the software-defined world. Many of the true benefits of virtualization weren't immediately realized, and people discovered that simply sticking apps in VMs only unlocked part of the value. Safely achieving the promised levels of efficiency and automation required a progression in the thinking, tooling and processes used to manage these environments. Without this, it was nearly impossible to deal with all the moving parts, and I think we can learn from this when moving on to other software-defined technologies.

VMblog:  What is realistic goal today with respect to Software-Defined for most organizations?

Hillier:  It is useful to think of software-defined as a state that you reach, and not just a technology you can buy. This is particularly true of the software-defined data center, which can't simply be purchased off the shelf, and is really more of a goal that you reach when you have put in place all of the required pieces. And these pieces may not always be what you think - it is actually possible to make existing virtualized infrastructure operate in a more software-defined way purely through the adoption of more advanced management software. If we think of complex industrial processes, the control system is the starting point for achieving efficiency and flexibility, and buying expensive robots may be overkill, at least initially. The same is true of IT infrastructure, and properly controlling VM placement and resource allocations, using policy to define how this should be done, can get you quite far using existing virtualization technologies. Policy allows the capabilities of hosting environments to be defined through software, and then scientifically aligned with application demands and their requirements, leading to a whole new level of efficiency and automation. Adopting a policy-based control system is an important first step, and after you gain more precise control over what you have, it then makes sense to look into more advanced software-defined components, such as SDN and SDS, based on their incremental business benefit.

VMblog:  You mention policy a lot - is that a key component of the software-defined data center?

Hillier:  Absolutely - if we go back to industrial control systems, the entire process is defined by control logic and "set points". Together these drive the actuators to achieve the desired outcome, and changing the logic and set points can cause the same machinery to behave differently. In the IT world a control system contains the parameters and set points that define how workloads should be hosted - everything from overcommit levels to redundancy requirements, compliance, storage requirements, etc. These form the policies that are effectively the contract between supply and demand, and they codify precisely how application demands are fulfilled by resource supply. Having the ability to establish policy-based management should be the starting point for any software-defined initiative, as the flexibility and numerous "degrees of freedom" need to be pinned down to specifics in an scientific, repeatable way. Unfortunately, because most software-defined technologies focus on a narrow aspect of operation, such as storage or network, none has a "big picture" policy of how the overall system should behave, forcing organizations to resort to spreadsheets or best guesses when trying to manage these complex environments. This in turn causes people to be tied up making imprecise, manual decisions, wasting their time and preventing organizations from reaching the required levels of automation.

VMblog:  You make it sound like automation is necessary - is it?

Hillier:  Yes it is, but it may not be the kind of automation most people think of. Most organizations focus on automating the configuration and operation of the environment, which is the goal of provisioning and orchestration systems. On the surface, the act of doing this is simple enough. If you know what you need the infrastructure to look like, then it should happen as automatically as possible. But the problem is that determining what is required is becoming increasingly complex, and leads to a new kind of automation that wasn't required in the past. This is the automation of the decision making process, so people can determine what needs to happen without being tied up using spreadsheets all day. Think of it this way: if you can automatically program the infrastructure to do anything you want, this newfound freedom will quickly turn into a curse as you realize it is nearly impossible to figure out what exactly to make it. The catch is that it is only by defining infrastructure and application requirements and establishing the policies that govern infrastructure operations can you automate at this level.

VMblog:  How does this relate to internal and external cloud?

Hillier:  It is interesting that cloud and software-defined are often two distinct thought processes, and seem to be independent in many organizations. This is mainly because one is effectively a supply-side concept (software-defined infrastructure) and one is a demand-side innovation (self-service access and freedom of choice). But thinking of them separately is a mistake, and adopting software-defined technologies also requires a new level of demand management in order to make it work. This is because the whole premise is to be able to flex the infrastructure to meet the specific needs of the applications, without deploying specialized hardware that is only suited to a specific function. To use another analogy, implementing siloed software-defined technologies without factoring in application demands is like having an infinitely configurable playground with no idea of what children are using it - it can't possibly be configured correctly. A policy-based control system for software-defined infrastructure enables supply and demand to constantly be aligned using a combination of policy, control analytics and automation.


Andrew Hillier has over 20 years of experience in the creation and implementation of mission-critical software for the world's largest financial institutions and utilities. A co-founder of Cirba, he leads product strategy and defines the overall technology roadmap for the company.

Prior to Cirba, Hillier pioneered a state of the art systems management solution which was acquired by Sun Microsystems and served as the foundation of their flagship systems management product, Sun Management Center. Hillier has also led the development of solutions for major financial institutions, including fixed income, equity, futures & options and interest rate derivatives trading systems, as well as in the fields of covert military surveillance, advanced traffic and train control, and the robotic inspection and repair of nuclear reactors.

Hillier holds a Bachelor of Science degree in computer engineering from The University of New Brunswick.
Published Wednesday, August 06, 2014 7:13 AM by David Marshall
Filed under: ,
Q&A: Interview with @Cirba, Talking Software-Defined Technologies … | COPY SOFT - (Author's Link) - August 6, 2014 7:27 PM
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Video Interview with @Cirba at #VMworld 2014 : @VMblogcom - (Author's Link) - August 26, 2014 6:38 PM
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