HPE's Synergy is a new type of 'composable' infrastructure

Hewlett Packard Enterprise says the new hardware configures itself automatically

Hewlett Packard Enterprise has developed a new type of "composable' hardware that it claims will cut data center costs and slash the time it takes to spin up new applications.

Called HPE Synergy, it combines storage, compute and network equipment in one chassis, along with management software that can quickly configure the hardware automatically to provide just the resources needed to run an application, HPE said.

"HPE Synergy's unique built-in software intelligence, auto discovery capabilities and fluid resource pools enable customers to instantly boot up infrastructure ready to run physical, virtual and containerized applications," the company said.

Industry analysts who saw an early version of the product said they were largely impressed. But a lot depends on HPE's ability to communicate the benefits to potential customers and deliver on the functionality it's promising. It says Synergy will ship in the second quarter of next year, and it won't release pricing until then.

HPE Synergy HPE

Five racks of HPE Synergy servers

The basic hardware is a frame 10 rack units high (17.5 inches) that can be ordered with various amounts of compute and storage. The frame also houses appliances that run the management software, including Synergy Composer and Synergy Image Streamer. Four frames can be stacked in a rack, and several racks can be lashed together.

Much of what's new lies in the software, which provides the smarts to discover and assemble the pools of compute and storage. Detailed configurations for particular applications are saved as templates and deployed through Composer. When a template is launched, it configures the hardware programmatically, without human intervention, according to HPE, reducing the chance for errors and speeding up the process. The management software can can also store OS images and apply them when a server is configured, automating that process as well.

If a template for a configuration doesn’t exist, HPE developed a “unified API” that handles functions like the BIOS configuration, storage provisioning and other tasks to set up the hardware. If a dev ops team wants to start testing a new app, the unified API lets them type a single line of code to configure the system they need, according to HPE. That allows developers to work more quickly and prevents IT from being the bottleneck, the company says. 

Richard Fichera, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, said Synergy should greatly reduce the time it takes IT departments to provision new systems.

"It solves a lot of the fundamental problems in provisioning the physical layer, for what is increasingly a dynamic infrastructure world," said Fichera, who was director of HP's blade systems strategy before joining Forrester five years ago.

The idea of a composable infrastructure isn't new, said Gartner analyst Paul Delory, noting that Cisco uses the term to describe its UCS M Series servers. But HPE appears closest to delivering on its potential, he said -- with the caveat that Synergy is still months from release. "I think what they've done is innovative," he said.

HPE is aiming the product initially at large enterprises that want the flexibility of a cloud infrastructure but don't want to move applications in the cloud, perhaps for security or compliance reasons. It's eyeing big companies in areas like finance, healthcare and insurance as good candidates. 

Synergy is the next step in the evolution of converged systems, in which customers buy a preconfigured, virtualized infrastructure. But converged systems are limited by the physical hardware in the box, says Paul Durzan, HPE vice president for Infrastructure Management and Orchestration Software.

“When you buy your resources, you’re buying a physical boundary. So if you run out of storage but not compute, you have to buy another box,” he said. Synergy solves the problem of stranded resources, Durzan says, because unlike converged systems, there are no fixed ratios of storage to compute; with Synergy, all capacity can be used, even if that means tapping storage modules two racks over.

The systems can still be virtualized, and HPE says it's working with VMware, Microsoft, Puppet, Ansible and Chef to provide access to the Synergy API through their virtualization and automation tools.

"With Chef, for instance, you take these configuration templates and you essentially serve it up as a library into Chef," Durzan said.

Synergy could enable companies to streamline purchase processes, Fichera said, because they'll no longer need to order new hardware against specific application or capacity requirements; Synergy provides them greater flexibility to configure systems after they're installed.

It's a stepping stone on the way to a more fully composable system, which might allow individual processors and memory chips to be programatically assembled. That capability is limited today by Intel's Xeon server processors, but when high-speed silicon photonic interconnects become a reality, servers may eventually become disaggregated down to the individual chip level, said IDC analyst Jed Scaramella.

Customers are interested in the concept of composable systems, he said, though many don't know the name. He thinks Synergy will appeal initially to blade server customers, of which HPE has a lot. "Then they can go after Cisco and UCS," he said.

"There will be some education barriers," Fichera said, "but this is not a technology that people need to be convinced is good for them."

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