Still, Peder Ulander, vice president for Open Source Solutions at Citrix, thinks the automation revolution will never be fully complete. "I don't think we ever get to the point where everything is 100% abstracted and automated," he said.
That said, organizations are already seeing big gains from their data center virtualization efforts. Ulander sees users gaining more control without IT staff assistance, with IT services delivered on demand to users via self-service portals. With Citrix vApps, for example, users can provision a LAMP stack in minutes, saving weeks on simple application delivery. With software-defined networks (SDN), admins will be saved from mundane tasks like provisioning VLANs, he says.
Ulander notes that Citrix customers like Zynga and Nokia are seeing a 10-fold return on their virtual data center investments. "Not only does it pay for itself, but you're driving creativity and innovation," he said. "Enterprises that don't look at doing this are throwing money away."
Oddly enough, Ulander doesn't see cost savings as a big benefit of software-defined data centers. He cites the Jevons paradox, a nearly 150-year-old economic theory that arose from an observation about the relationship between coal efficiency and consumption. Making a resource easier to use leads to greater consumption, not less, says Ulander. As users can do more for themselves and don't have to wait for IT, they do more, so more gets used.
"The real gain is in the agility of the business," said Ulander. "A self-service model is where the future is headed."
"We have a long way to go before this becomes mainstream, but I believe it's going to be transformative," said Ulander. "It's exciting to be part of this and watch it grow. We're very much playing at the core of this."
Red Hat and the open source data center
Red Hat, not surprisingly, is taking an open source approach to virtual data centers.
"We want to get to an open hybrid cloud," said Radhesh Balakrishnan, Red Hat's general manager of virtualization. "We fully embrace software-defined anything."
The company's goal is "stateless apps" – if a piece of underlying hardware fails, it doesn't matter to the end user, who doesn't even notice the failure. Another goal is a common fabric for storage and networking. "Single pane of glass management is our goal," said Balakrishnan.
With the company's foundation of stable, hardened versions of open source software, Red Hat claims a cost advantage over VMware. "For the price of virtualization, you can get cloud," said Balakrishnan.
He considers OpenStack a competitor to VMware's vCloud, and the "default infrastructure platform" for everything above the fabric in private clouds.
"If you want to get a meeting with a CIO, the best way is to say you want to have a conversation about OpenStack," said Balakrishnan. He expects to see OpenStack production deployments take off in the next 12-18 months. "The integration layer is maturing very fast," he said.
He sees cost reduction, agility and future-proofing as the biggest benefits of a virtual data center.
"It will take some of the complexity and cost out of hardware, but you won't get to 0/100," he said.
Implications of virtual data centers
As with any big technological change, the biggest question surrounding software-defined data centers is what the future will look like. Will admin jobs vanish? Will users spin up IT services by themselves, with no help from IT staffers? Will all hardware become a commodity?
The truth is likely to reside somewhere in the middle. VMware's Jacques predicts that more and more basic tasks will get automated, but complex new tasks will arise that require IT expertise. He cites Big Data as one emerging new area of technological complexity. And organizations will always need someone to swap out and maintain the underlying hardware.
Complexity is a "moving target," Jacques said. "Will IT become simpler? Yes, but at the same time, other things will become more complex."
He doesn't see all hardware becoming "dumb," with the intelligence residing in the data center management layer. Native hardware intelligence will likely always have a role, and it's up to management software vendors like VMware, Citrix and Red Hat to put it to use. And there will still be room for higher-margin systems, as Cisco has shown with its integrated Unified Computing System (UCS).
But there's no question that many things will become simpler. Just as an operating system can mask underlying complexity, so too will the new generation of software-defined data centers. And IT roles will certainly change as a result. Admins will still be needed, but might become something of a commodity themselves, while Big Data analysts and other as yet unforeseen roles will become the new sought-after careers. And a new generation of IT vendors may emerge to lead the way.
For one company's pioneering experience with software-defined data centers, see MicroStrategy Reaps Virtualization's Benefits with Software-Defined Data Center.
Paul Shread is editor in chief of the IT Business Edge network.