One of the significant trends that we see firms turning towards today is Hyper Converged Infrastructure or HCI. It’s not a new concept, as Nutanix primarily introduced it in 2009. Today many vendors offer Hyperconverged solution, including Cisco, HPE, Lenovo, NetApp, Dell and there are other providers out there, such as IBM working with Nutanix to deliver AIX via HCI. Why the interest and what is the value in HCI? It brings a new way to deliver and use IT infrastructure, but yet harkens back to the earlier days of IT. It can provide many advantages so let’s discuss that a bit this month.
So what is HCI? At its core, it’s an IT infrastructure solution that is a software-based architecture to provide all of the components needed (compute, storage, network, virtualization, and other functions) collectively into a single system; hence its name. It can be an appliance, a reference architecture, or software based. The popularity of today’s HCI systems is generally appliance or software based. A reference architecture is usually considered Converged Infrastructure, versus HCI. HCI is where the systems and components work collectively by being integrated through software, wherein Converged Infrastructure the systems and components (compute, storage, or network) can be separated. In HCI they cannot.
As HCI is software based it follows the natural evolution of where virtualization (and ultimately cloud) has taken us. It started with server virtualization with VMware. Abstract your workloads (VM’s) from the hardware itself. Then came storage virtualization where your storage is controlled, managed and provisioned via software with vSAN solutions. Then network virtualization to abstract the network hardware from the actual network capabilities, which is in the software. What’s the next step--to tie it all together. That’s where we evolved to Converged Infrastructure and then on to Hyperconverged Infrastructure.
By bringing all of these areas together, HCI emphasizes the importance of the software layer—and particularly the hypervisor— and deemphasizes the importance of the hardware layer. In fact, HCI systems tend to use commodity hardware as the hardware foundation. Since commodity hardware is cheaper than specialized or proprietary hardware, these systems can be cost-efficient, especially in storage, where HCI uses DAS versus much more expensive SAN. Does that lessen their value? Hardly. Since it’s the SW that matters and the hypervisor—be it VMware, Hyper-V, KVM and Nutanix’s offshoot, Acropolis—the integration of the hardware with the software is where the value lies.
The hypervisor is just the foundational software. There are various other types of software to make HCI shine and valuable. All HCI platforms have a management layer to allow for the management of the entire system collectively and of the individual components. Many other software features are bundled into HCI systems that tend to be sold as a separate option when using distributed or silo’s systems including deduplication, compressions, data protection, snapshots, WAN optimization, and BCDR. As all of us know who’ve have been in the IT industry for any period, these products are expensive when purchased on their own.
HCI is essentially the functionality of cloud. It provides all that is needed to run an IT environment in one stack and one solution. That’s exactly what cloud is all about. HCI happens to be a cloud you can keep on on-premise, versus on out in the public cloud. There’s value to that.
What are the advantages of HCI?
HCI brings with it many benefits and advantages, and they include:
As firms are looking towards modernization, HCI is a different approach and leans towards it
Very easy and straightforward to deploy workloads
It gives you the "abilities & capabilities" of a public cloud, but with an on-premise solution
You get the automation capabilities of cloud - private cloud
Can start small and grow by adding only the nodes or infrastructure to start and grow as needed
Performance tends to scale just linearly, with little performance degradation as the solutions scale.
You don't have to buy separate software, and most (if not all) software and functionality is included within the system
A single management pane to administer the entire solution. You don’t need to know how to administer the separate components of HCI (compute functionality, storage functionality, network, virtualization, etc.), though it can help. Much like server virtualization, where you didn’t have to know the underlying hardware, so it is with HCI.
Uses commodity hardware, which can drive down costs, as compared to using and assembling siloed systems separately.
HCI can provide up to 99.999% available on an x86 platform. 99.999% use to only be available for large systems and mainframes.
What are the drawbacks of HCI?
Of course, as with any newer technology/solution, HCI there can be potential for drawbacks:
It's a new way of doing things, which can go against traditional culture within organizations that are used to having separate server/compute, storage and network environments.
In many of the systems, when you have to increase one resource (say need more compute or storage), you have to increase all resources, meaning more both storage and compute. Some systems and manufacturers are changing that where you can add only compute and/or storage nodes, but it’s a potential drawback.
The value of HCI is the tight integration of the compute, storage and virtualization components. On the networking side, it's not quite the same as of yet, but getting better. Cisco's is currently the only HCI solution that contains its own hardware across the entire solution
It doesn’t integrate with your traditional siloed systems.
Why are firms looking toward HCI?
That said about the goods and drawbacks, how are firms using HCI? As most remember when HCI first came out it was targeted towards VDI workloads. It was a natural fit, in that VDI workloads required specific performance and that needing scaling in a very predictable way. If the initial system gave you capacity and performance for 100 VDI instances, and in the future, you need to support another 100 users, you would simply add additional capacity to your system (each system does it differently) to support those next 100 users. You would benefit with the same predictable performance.
Due to this HCI was embraced and took off, as firms were thrilled with the idea of NOT having to manage their technology as individual components. It started with VDI, and then became popular for remote offices and department level IT where firms and IT departments didn’t want full-blown IT environments (nor have IT people) in these locations. It made sense, and we saw firms of all sizes embrace it. Have a site or small department that requires infrastructure but don’t want to invest heavily in IT? HCI is a good choice. It's easy to manage, and there is not much to fix when something goes wrong, as since it’s an integrated solution, the manufacturer has to fix it.
The SMB or ROBO seems to be a natural fit but where we’ve seen HCI take root and grow is, believe it or not, in the enterprise. How so? Well even in the enterprise, contrary to what most believe, people want simplicity. By using HCI, you essentially have your own private cloud, it sets up and is ready to use in minutes and just works. Need more performance? Just add nodes/systems and scale. Wait, but what about enterprise capabilities? It’s pretty much built-in. Flash storage? Check. Deduplication/compression? Yup. Backup/restore/BCDR? Yes. HCI is enterprise-ready and is tuned for performance.
We also see firms using HCI for application specific purposes. Because of its tight integration, the performance of the solution is tuned. Therefore larger firms are using HCI to run enterprise applications, such as databases, which traditionally have their own siloed environments. VDI is a natural for HCI, as discussed, and it can be your own private cloud. Applications specific use will continue to grow (in SMB’s and enterprise) where, as I mentioned above, people want simplicity and ease of use, but demanded enterprise performance.
So, does HCI make sense? The market seems to think so, and I believe the integrated systems market will continue to grow. Gartner predicts the HCI market will be $5 billion by 2019, which is 24% of the overall market for integrated systems. That’s a small part of the global technology market, but here’s the thing: it’s growing significantly quicker than the traditional systems market. Why? Because, as I mentioned above, people want simplicity and ease of use. That’s why HCI is moving into areas of the enterprise that are traditionally earmarked for larger siloed systems. This will continue as it continues to move towards more mainstream use.
Of note is ransomware protection, and where HCI can help, since it is such a big concern today. How so? Since HCI automates the backup and restore process, it makes it simple to rollback to a state before an attack, thereby negating the ransomware. Get hit? Just rollback to a few minutes before an attack and you are good to go. So simple but so powerful and necessary for today.
It generally started with Nutanix, but since then, as I mentioned above, many players have entered the market, including the larger manufacturers. That in and of itself validates the market for HCI. However, like all things in our IT world, it’s not the technology, but how it’s used. It also doesn’t take away the need to be prudent in how you do things. You need to design, architect, be operationally smart for your environment, workloads, and growth. You will need to plan for challenges that will inevitably happen, such as disasters, downtime, user error, and cyber attacks, etc. For BCDR purposes it provides replication capabilities, but you still need two of them, and they need to be separated, and/or backed up and/or replicated to the cloud. So the old rules for doing things smartly still apply.
Will HCI replace the cloud? No, but it’s another way of doing things where people get that could functionality, automation, and management, without that subscription each and every month and want or need their technology onsite. How HCI works and allows for setting up workloads and provisioning is very much cloud-like, which makes it a private cloud. And it can work in harmony with a public cloud for backup/DR as well. So it won’t replace the cloud but will augment and work nicely with it.
What is your take and how are you are using HCI? Most of the firms we work with are using it or testing it in some way but, as I said, it’s not completely replacing siloed systems or cloud, but the concept, approach, and architecture is getting firms and people interested and it is here to stay. There will always be a market for simpler, where people don’t want or care to focus on IT, but just want to focus on running their businesses. This is where’s where HCI fits. We’ll continue to monitor HCI and it's growth and use over time and I'll give you my take in future posts. But in the meantime, here’s to simpler and ease of use.