Both IBM and Sun Microsystems are building software to provide systems administrators with a single, consistent view of their IT infrastructures, from business applications and related servers, through the network and down to the storage arrays.

Users and analysts said they expect such systems to provide managers with far more control over IT operations and need fewer administrators.

Tim Dougherty, director of IBM's BladeCenter server division, said IBM is working to port its SAN Volume Controller (SVC) and SAN File Manager software to its BladeCenter server systems in order to uncouple applications from physical servers and storage. The project is expected to be completed by year's end.

Ken Westerback, information technology architect at St. Michael's Hospital in Canada, said he likes the idea of fewer management points but does not care whether virtualisation is on either his BladeCenter or an appliance in front of all his storage. "As far as a single point of management for servers and storage, we're not doing it," he said. However, "I certainly believe the fewer management points, the better."

St. Michael's uses IBM's SVC product to pool storage capacity from two IBM midrange FAStT arrays and a high-end Enterprise Storage Server. Westerback also purchased three IBM BladeCenter products over the past 18 months and is looking to add a second BladeCenter rack.

Dougherty said IBM started the integration project with BladeCenter because 50 per cent of those systems are used in storage-area networks and because it can use both network LAN and Fibre Channel switches.

Chris Woods, chief technology officer for Sun's storage practice, said that by midyear, customers should have access to new Sun software that marries the Container tool in the Solaris 10 operating system with the StorEdge Enterprise Storage Manager software it licensed from Burlington, Mass.-based AppIQ.

The Solaris Container tool creates virtual zones, thereby isolating business applications and their supporting servers. Enterprise Storage Manager creates an abstraction layer between servers and their supporting storage infrastructure, Woods said.

Illuminata analyst David Freund said that IBM's and Sun's efforts are part of a trend among system vendors to bring mainframe-like features to distributed environments.

"With that big box, you had complete control over the infrastructure," Freund said. "You can see all the resources and manage them and charge for them. I think senior IT people want their big box back."

James Dobson, a systems architect at Dartmouth College, uses Solaris-based Sun servers and storage arrays. He's interested in combining the management of his server, network and storage infrastructure, but he's also wary about problems that such integration software could cause. Dobson said he would need the ability to debug and troubleshoot such software.

"Provided that we can get a good idea of what was done, I would find the tighter integration of storage, network, servers and services to be a useful direction," Dobson said.

IBM's Dougherty said he expects the adoption curve of combined virtual server/storage applications will be slow because "the reality is, customers don't turn on a dime overnight."