The Little Toaster that Could

 Author(s): , Posted on January 5th, 2012

IT Appliances have come a long way from their humble origins.  When they first hit the market, appliances were referred to as “toasters” by the IT cognoscenti.  Perhaps the term was originally meant as pejorative in nature, but it really captured the concept that it was a simple “set and forget” device, requiring very little configuration expertise.  These appliances were identified by their functionality.  For example, network appliances provided switching and routing functions.  And in the mid-nineties, large file servers were introduced as appliances. You may remember that “NetApp” started as “Network Appliances,” which provided large file servers and were pitched as network data appliances.  Back then, everything was about the network.  But that was soooo twentieth century, wasn’t it?

So, what was the motivation for appliances?  Back in the ‘90s, I saw it as a shortcoming of software engineering in the following sense.  It was easier to plug in an appliance than to configure the software on a standard commodity server.  Looking back at the original appliances, the information you had to put into the device was overwhelming.  Imagine getting a router and a set of 8 diskettes (remember diskettes?).  After transferring their information into the device, you needed to choose from a complex set of options to set it up to be “just right.”  Of course picking the options would have been a challenge since the user interface device could cost as much as the appliance.  Given the complexities of configuring software, a shrink-wrapped appliance made a lot of sense.

The design decision for appliances that plagued the early manufacturers was to either pick a custom-made processor or implement functionality on a “commodity server.”  History has shown us that commodity servers consistently increased in performance at a rate that surpassed the performance of the custom server selection.   

This conundrum was eliminated with the adoption of virtual appliances allowing a single commodity server to be used to host multiple virtual appliances. For example, the Unisys Secure Private Cloud appliance hosts over 10 virtual appliances that are all pre-configured to work together to provide a “shrink-wrapped” cloud management environment.

But what really makes an appliance an “IT Appliance?”  The term “Datacenter Appliance” has been used to describe a containerized datacenter that is delivered in toto and includes all IT infrastructure needed to run a customer’s applications.  The Virtual Computing Environment Company (VCE) has introduced vBlock which includes processing, storage, network connectivity and virtualization in discrete units. In general, the term “Datacenter Appliance” seems to apply to appliances that provide the physical and virtual resources for a datacenter.  Today, Oracle’s Exadata is pitched as an “IT Appliance.”  It includes processing, storage, network connectivity, an operating system and applications.  As an all-in-one box (significantly bigger than a toaster), it could perhaps suggest a future direction for appliances.

Imagine a real “IT Appliance” that can manage and host all of the IT resources, along with the necessary automation of processes that are required to maintain steady-state execution of applications.  An example of this would be the current integration of Unisys Secure Private Cloud with the Unisys remote infrastructure management offering, called “Unisys Converged Remote Infrastructure Management Services” or simply c-RIM.    The appliance offers self-service provisioning of infrastructure and automatically updates the back end IT Service Management (ITSM) processes that are managed remotely.  In this way, datacenters can keep their critical information within their datacenter but the care and feeding of the resources and applications, along with operational best practices, are handled through a single appliance on the customer’s premises.

OK, it’s not as simple as a toaster, but we’re getting there…

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