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The real future of IT infrastructure lies in abstraction

Future IT infrastructure will be so abstracted from the applications using it that, while always a misnomer, serverless computing will be a reality.

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The definition of IT infrastructure came up during a panel discussion about the future of virtualization, leading to a point that I had taken for granted:

"Infrastructure professionals must stop thinking of infrastructure as hardware only," said Scott Lowe, engineering architect at VMware and a fellow panelist.

If virtualization has taught us anything, it's that infrastructure is an abstracted concept. So, what's in store for the near and far future of IT infrastructure? A combination of hypervisors, containers and platform as a service (PaaS) serverless computing.

The long tail of the hypervisor

Hypervisors will continue as part of the data center as long as there's a data center, for both financial and technical reasons. Organizations invest in technology transformation that provides a business benefit. It's difficult enough to get application support from one major operating system version to the next without some sort of refactoring. Many IT shops still run an old version of the Solaris OS, due to the inability to refactor or purchase a new version of the application that runs on a modern operating system.

I suspect that the hypervisor-based infrastructure needed to support VMs will exist for years to come. The physical underlay may look very different. Engineering teams will develop methods to deliver VM infrastructures in simplified packaging. As the VM footprint shrinks within a data center, customers will look toward hyper-converged infrastructure and cloud to simplify the management and support of the VM underlay.

Eventually, we will see a tipping point where the investment in VMs and hypervisors is eclipsed by other abstraction technologies.

The container stopgap

The push for IT infrastructure abstraction has led to a temporary stopgap. Containers enable microservice-based applications to translate easily to existing infrastructure constructs. Many experts have surmised that containers may displace VMs as the primary unit of computing in the data center.

Randy Bias, VP of technology at EMC, detailed why containers will replace hypervisors as the underlay for new applications, in an extended post on this topic.

Containers will continue taking advantage of performance and security improvements implemented at the processor level. Moreover, containers add agility to the application development workflow. Applications are quickly developed and packaged in lightweight environments. The same packaging used to develop the application is used to deploy the application. Containers are therefore viewed as an enabler for DevOps.

Containers have formed the basis for microservices. Using orchestration and clustering software, such as Google Kubernetes and Mesosphere's product portfolio, highly scalable and portable systems use containers to deliver complex services. Advanced data center orchestration tools can move these microservices across private and public cloud lines. However, before long, developers will no longer even need to understand the concept of the container. 

Serverless platforms 

The long game for infrastructure engineers and managers is the focus on serverless services. Serverless is a term coined for services such as AWS Lambda and IBM OpenWhisk.

Lambda creates event-based microservices. An example is the capacity to locate a vehicle via GPS if an alert is received for a ride-sharing application. 

Another example serverless platform, Cloud Foundry, is a services-based PaaS concept. Developers create code and push it to a Cloud Foundry provider. Code forgoes infrastructure concepts, such as containers or VMs. Cloud Foundry code calls services such as MongoDB for the database services and CloudBees for application code. There's no need to reference specific servers or host names within the code.

The future of IT infrastructure is to create and support resource groupings that support VMs, containers and serverless platforms. Engineers can expect a mix of all three constructs. What is still unknown is how all three underlays will be orchestrated. Infrastructure organizations have the option of deploying containers and PaaS platforms on top of existing hypervisors. VMware is positioning VMware Integrated Containers and Photon Platform as an alternative to bare metal container platforms. EMC, via Pivotal, is especially excited to get its flavor of Cloud Foundry into the data centers of existing VMware vSphere customers. 

Alternatively, some IT architects are considering an all-container infrastructure where KVM runs under containers to provide the hypervisor support needed by legacy applications. With the level of effort required to engineer these platforms, there are not many resources left to focus on the physical underlay.

To properly allocate engineering resources, IT managers are looking to their technology vendors to provide the basic physical infrastructure. Future IT infrastructure may come in the form of hyper-converged and converged platforms. That infrastructure might also include abstracted resources, via cloud services, such as Amazon Web Services or Azure. In the end, the goal is to abstract away the physical underlay and provide platforms -- as opposed to servers -- for developers to work on. It's prudent for IT teams to leave behind the hardware-only construct when considering the possible future of IT infrastructure. 

This was last published in July 2016

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