As companies race to achieve their digital transformation, the data center is undergoing a complete restructuring of its architecture. Many enterprises are migrating to a hybrid IT approach in which workloads are matched to the appropriate platform that optimizes the user experience while maximizing ROI. In order to attain greater levels of agility and flexibility that is required in today’s globally competitive environment, IT must divest the silos within the typical enterprise that have segmented its ability to act as one uniform fluid ecosphere. (To learn more about digital transformation, check out The Do’s and Don’ts of Digital Transformation.)

IT management must also look for ways to reduce the time-to-value of new infrastructure by reducing deployment times and streamlining operation. Doing so allows business units to maximize the ever-shrinking windows of opportunity that can directly contribute to the profitability of the company. In order to meet these tall expectations, IT is incorporating several technologies such as cloud computing, software-defined networking and hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI).

The Legacy Silo-Dominated Data Center

Up until recently, any attempt to transform IT within an organization has been traditionally defined by months, if not years. Most transformations are initiated by the need to replace end-of-life hardware or introduce new operating systems every few years. These vast time windows allowed IT the luxury of taking up to six months to move from the birth of an idea to implementation.

Imagine for a moment the complexity of involvement undertaken within a large data center project such as the deployment of a new virtual server farm. Internal IT must work with a server vendor in order to size and order the required boxes. Then a SAN has to be purchased and provisioned, including the back-end iSCSI network consisting of a separate switch infrastructure. A core switch is then purchased and configured to service front-end traffic to the servers. The last step involves the installation and configuration of the appropriate virtualization solution. The purchasing and provisioning of each of these separate components is time consuming and labor intensive. It also requires a separate expertise of each solution for the internal IT staff.

What Is HCI?

The first step in the HCI evolutionary process was simply converged infrastructure (CI). It was first adapted by cloud providers as a way to achieve the elastic scalability and rapid deployments necessary to build out the massive global data center presence that cloud computing requires. This created a modular approach to creating data centers with commoditized hardware. Within these modular systems, all facets of the data center – compute, storage, networking and virtualization resources are tightly integrated into a single commodity hardware box or chassis. HCI is much like the UTM appliances that enterprises use today that incorporate the operations of a firewall, IPS, anti-virus and web filtering in a single box. New modules can simply be added on in simple fashion as needed.

Hyperconverged infrastructure takes the evolutionary step initiated by CI one step further and integrates software-defined technologies, thus creating a software-defined data center (SDDC) in a box. Gartner defines HCI as “a platform offering shared compute and storage resources, based on software-defined storage, software-defined compute, commodity hardware and a unified management interface.” In addition to the principle of commoditizing the underlying hardware, HCI delivers added value through its software tools. Through software intelligence, all of the included data center components are aware of each other and can work as one fluid ecosphere. Many HCI solutions incorporate additional components such as backup software, snapshot capabilities, data deduplication, inline compression and WAN optimization. (Want to learn about another level of convergence? Check out The Future of IT Infrastructure: Superconvergence.)

Advantages of HCI

Companies are beginning to recognize some key advantages of HCI, which is why Gartner estimates that companies will spend $5 billion on HCI infrastructure by 2019.

  • A Single Platform – The challenge of having to manage multiple environments can be highly demanding. HCI integrates the separate silos of compute, storage and networking and bridges the gap between them. Because everything happens under a single hood, there is no vendor blame game as it is backed by a single-vendor support model. Compatibility issues are not a concern as the vendor has already done the hard work of integrating the system.
  • Simplicity – HCI automates the tasks of provisioning, monitoring, diagnosis and file management. All areas of compute, storage and networking are managed through a single portal and most tasks can be accomplished with a prescribed number of clicks. Patching and updating is streamlined and deployment is simple and straightforward.
  • Unprecedented Scalability – HCI is sometimes referred to as the “Lego approach” to data center infrastructure. As customers need more resources, they simply add more boxes, and compute and storage capabilities are automatically presented upon expansion.
  • Prescriptive Performance – Achieving predictable performance and availability is paramount for IT today as companies now operate in a 24/7 world. In order to accomplish this, every component that goes into the underlying infrastructure must operate with predictive performance as well. HCI vendors offer tested certified hardware and software bundles that are predesigned and engineered from the ground up. Because they are prebuilt, they can be deployed upon arrival at the customer’s location.
  • Reduced Support Costs – Forecasting the cost of ownership and operational costs is a necessary step when considering solutions today that involve the enterprise. HCI makes all of this easier since it is about software-driven commodity hardware, which equals lower costs, reduces deployment time and works in automated fashion. HCI has a smaller footprint and smaller step size, both of which translates into smaller data center costs.

Things to Consider Before Acquiring an HCI Solution

Like any new technology, HCI vendors are heralding this new modular turnkey approach to the data center as the salvation that will deliver IT to the promised land. While the advantages of HCI are empowering for many companies, some distinct drawbacks should be considered.

  • Cost – HCI vendors often proclaim considerable cost savings in their solutions. Although the longer term cost structures can show savings down the road when evaluating all involved costs over the life of the product, these systems are expensive up front. Managers should do a full cost analysis of any proposed solution.
  • Vendor Lock-in – One of the peculiar concerns of a solution that is centered on commodity hardware is the prevalence of vendor lock-in. While unifying all hardware resources under one vendor does make support and maintenance simpler, there is an inherent risk in putting all of your marbles into a single provider.
  • Inflexible Scaling – Because HCI solutions are designed as preconfigured appliances, customization is very limited. In some cases, additional storage must be purchased alongside additional server nodes. In addition, some solutions such as VXRail only support VMware. Finding HCI solutions that support Hyper-V can be challenging in the current environment.
  • Lag Time in New Technologies – Going with an HCI system may mean not always having the most up-to-date component technology. This is due to the intense amount of interoperability testing required, which can take months to complete after a new processor and chipset are announced.
  • Lack of Expertise – Because this technology is so new, it can be difficult to find IT professionals that are informed and familiar with these types of systems. It can even be challenging to find sales people who can speak competently about them as well.

Some of these disadvantages are fleeting and will be worked out as the industry matures. Depending on the needs of your organization, HCI can be a very attractive solution for enterprises today. The fact is that the foundation principles that HCI is based on are becoming the way of the future for many companies today.