Reference architecture vs. converged infrastructure: Know the difference

The terms converged infrastructure and reference architecture frequently appear together, but they're not interchangeable. One is the blueprint and the other is a structure.

It's important to know the difference between reference architecture vs. converged infrastructure. The terms are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings and should not be confused.

A reference architecture is a template that documents a system's configuration, whereas converged infrastructure (CI) refers to the system itself. A reference architecture is similar to a blueprint that might detail a building's structural components. The blueprint says what materials customers need and how they go together. But customers must still buy those materials, have them delivered, pour the concreate, frame the walls, add the roof, wire the outlets and hang the doors.

The reference architecture can save time, ensure that shops use resources wisely, and that they end up with a sound structure, but someone still needs to build the converged infrastructure stack.

What is a reference architecture?

A reference architecture often comes in the form of a white paper that provides guidelines for how best to deliver a specific technology or system. The reference architecture describes the components that make up a system and provides specifics about how to put it together. It offers detailed information about the best way to configure the software and hardware components.

Customers must still buy those materials, have them delivered, pour the concreate, frame the walls, add the roof, wire the outlets and hang the doors.

Depending on the nature of the product, the reference architecture might also include content such as code samples, API references and implementation best practices. Each reference architecture is unique and specific to the technology it serves, and it can vary substantially from one to the next in terms of how much information it provides.

Vendors often provide reference architectures to build systems that maximize the performance and efficiency of their products. But customers are still responsible for acquiring the components and assembling them into a cohesive package.

What is converged infrastructure?

CI seeks to maximize the compatibility between server, storage and network components and utilize resources as efficiently as possible. An effective CI product can help minimize power consumption, floor space and the need for cabling. IT teams turn to CI as a way to consolidate resources, reduce administrative overhead and minimize costs.

Yet putting together a CI system is no small task, which is why shops often consult reference architectures for detailed information about how to assemble converged infrastructure stacks in their data centers. This is where some of the confusion regarding reference architecture vs. converged infrastructure arises.

Reference architecture vs. converged infrastructure

A converged infrastructure reference architecture is merely the blueprint, not the infrastructure itself. A vendor provides the reference architecture to partners or customers so they know how to assemble their own CI using components sold by the vendor and its partners.

A comprehensive reference architecture for CI includes recommendations that have been lab-tested and perhaps even field-tested. Ideally, the reference architecture provides specifics about all of the converged infrastructure's components, their configurations and how to integrate them with each other and other systems.

It's important to note that not all CI products are implemented via a reference architecture. Vendors offer packaged systems -- often in the form of appliances -- that deliver a complete CI stack out of the box. Customers receive a system that contains all the necessary components, preintegrated and preconfigured throughout the entire stack.

Even the most comprehensive converged infrastructure reference architecture does not necessarily translate to an easy and effective CI implementation. The customer must still gather all the pieces together and assemble them into a cohesive whole.

Unfortunately, the type of components that make up a CI system might not fit together or work as eloquently as they do under the lab conditions that support the reference architecture; the reference architecture points customers in the right direction, but it's up to them to reach their destinations.

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