How to go hyper and not regret it
Many commentators spruik the benefits of adopting hyperconverged infrastructure, but not everyone is convinced it’s the right choice for every company.
Infrastructure is continuing its trend towards integration, a pattern that has seen traditional siloed infrastructure deployments — in which organisations buy, deploy and manage server and storage infrastructure in separate stacks — give way somewhat to converged infrastructure, in which customers buy pre-integrated bundles of servers, storage and networking. Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI), one recent incarnation of this increasingly integrated endeavour, appears to be gaining popularity across the globe.
It’s worth noting at the outset that there are a variety of competing accounts of exactly what HCI entails — how the term should be defined — and many of those differences are driven by different vendors trying to convince potential customers that their specific flavour of HCI is the best option. So in quantifying the precise nature of HCI it’s perhaps best to defer instead to the analyst firms, which provide their definitions after casting their gaze across a wide and varied market. In Gartner’s report ‘The Positive Disruption of Hyperconvergence Adoption in the Midmarket’, analyst Mike Cisek uses the term ‘Hyperconverged integrated systems’ (HCIS), which is defined as: “Tightly coupled compute, network and storage hardware that dispenses with the need for a regular storage area network (SAN)”. In HCI systems, according to this definition, storage management functions and compute provisioning are delivered through a management software layer and/or hardware.
IDC defines hyperconverged systems as “pre-integrated, vendor-certified systems containing server hardware, disk storage systems, networking equipment and basic element/systems management software”. In IDC’s eyes, a key difference between HCI and other types of converged or integrated systems is that HCI systems can provide all their compute and storage functions through the same server-based resources.
Global sales figures certainly seem to suggest that HCI is taking hold. IDC’s latest Worldwide Quarterly Converged Systems Tracker report, which provides statistics on revenues in the converged systems market, indicated that HCI sales appear to be increasing, while other related technologies — integrated infrastructure, certified reference systems and integrated platforms — are experiencing a drop in sales. According to that report, hyperconverged systems sales more than doubled from Q3 2015 to Q3 2016, leaping 104.3% from US$279.3m to US$570.5m. Sales in the other three converged categories covered by the report fell between those two time points.
But while these sales figures might indicate that HCI is gaining global market share, it’s not necessarily the case that it is dominating infrastructure conversations in Australian companies. Peter Hall, an advisor at research and advisory firm IBRS, said that his organisation sees more of its clients looking to move to cloud-based services, rather than HCI, to replace or expand their computing power. “One reason is so that they don’t have to worry about acquiring, managing, maintaining and upgrading their own infrastructure, and of course a desire to have the right amount of capacity available at all times,” he said.
Hall also said that local organisations considering integrated infrastructure aren’t focusing specifically on HCI. These organisations may also be looking at converged infrastructure (CI) solutions, he said, “or CI software only solutions which can give them more flexibility with the hardware components. It will still be a case of purchasing the right sort of systems to be fit for purpose, and at an appropriate investment level.”
All things considered
There are several issues that organisations should consider when buying or implementing HCI. According to IBRS’s Hall, the first issue involves looking at the market and deciding what sort of solution will best suit the organisation.
“HCI may not even be the answer. HCI vendors typically supply appliances that package up all the vendor’s components: servers, storage, networking, virtualisation and the vendor’s software in the one box. The goal is of course rapid and simple deployment,” he said. “Alternatively, some vendors are offering a software only approach to CI, which can provide a cheaper and perhaps more flexible option, but probably with more effort required in the deployment versus a fully integrated HCI.”
Organisations considering HCI solutions should also cast their eyes to the future, and ask questions about upgrades and flexibility. “How do the specific offerings get upgraded? How rigid is the architecture and how flexible is it, especially if a new innovation comes out that might be important to the organisation,” Hall said. He suggested a hypothetical case where an organisation deploys an HCI solution, and later down the track a new hypervisor is released that the organisation wishes to use — but the vendor doesn’t support that hypervisor, and may not support it for some time. “Issues like this may drive an organisation to consider a CI software only approach, or a traditional CI offering.”
Along similar lines, the Gartner report ‘Beware the ‘Myth-Conceptions’ Surrounding Hyperconverged Integrated Systems’, penned by Gartner analysts George J Weiss, Julia Palmer and Andrew Butler, nominates several questions that infrastructure leaders need to consider in relation to HCI solutions: “What are the form factors, configurations and management control points, and are they delivered as interchangeable components? Are the components disaggregated so that they can be upgraded on individual technology life cycles and integrated for maximum performance and efficiency — for example, solid-state drives (SSDs) versus hard-disk drives (HDDs), non-volatile RAM (NVRAM) and Peripheral Component Interconnect Express (PCIe) cards?”
If an organisation does go with HCI, Hall said they should consider how much flash storage will be needed. Given that flash costs more than traditional storage, they should ask whether an HCI offering comes in all-flash, or if it allows hybrid configurations. Additionally, “When investigating the various offerings from the vendors, consideration should be given to issues like hypervisor support (what are the options), flexibility of the hardware components, management and security capabilities, and scalability limitations. These will vary amongst the vendors.”
IDC Australia Vice President, APeJ Cloud & Services Group Chris Morris nominated three issues an organisation should consider when looking at HCI: 1) whether an HCI offering’s architecture is compatible with or suitable for the planned workload, 2) whether the required level of support is available from the vendor and its ecosystem, and 3) how suitable the ecosystem of applications providers and SIs is for the organisation’s industry. “The business managers buy the applications that need the platforms, and they will want relevant applications and experience,” he said.
The market for HCI solutions now includes older traditional infrastructure vendors that are offering HCI solutions, as well as specialist HCI vendors that only came into existence sometime in the last 10 years or so. As such, an organisation deliberating over HCI solutions may itself be torn between an older (and potentially more reliable) traditional vendor and a relative new (and potentially more risky) vendor.
“There is always an element of risk with small or new vendors for hardware or software. And given that the HCI market has become very competitive and demanding of R&D investment it is likely that some will fail or, if they have unique capabilities or market presence, be acquired,” said IDC’s Morris. “However, the selection depends on the risk assessment by the buyer — it could be that the necessary product life is short or that the target workload can be easily ported to another platform. If the risk assessment shows that then the use of a smaller vendor’s solution could be OK.”
Hall said that an assessment of a vendor would also include examination of the depth of their local personnel; their level of experience, spare parts and logistics; and how rapidly they are growing locally. He added that organisations should consider these issues based on where they are in Australia. As an example, Hall asked: “What is a vendor’s ability in Perth versus Sydney?”
Traditional siloed infrastructure — with separate stacks of compute and storage — is in many organisations managed by separate server and storage administrators. One of the supposed drawcards of HCI is that these infrastructure elements can be managed through a single, unified management console. As a consequence, if an organisation does go ahead and replace its traditional, siloed infrastructure with HCI, it theoretically may no longer need those specialised administrators.
Hall noted, “It is true that one of the promises of HCI systems is that they are supposed to be easier to manage through a single environment, and that includes the servers, storage and network”. However, he added, “It may take years for an organisation to completely replace one style of computing with another, so IT staff will continue to be required, and will most likely evolve to manage these new HCI environments. You may have been a server specialist in the past, and now you learn to be an HCI specialist.”
And when it comes to planning and sizing systems, “skills are still going to be required to understand how to determine the server capacity required, as well as the storage, and the plans for backup and mirroring of the storage”, Hall said.
Morris said that some organisations do indeed find themselves with unnecessary server and storage admins following a move to HCI. “But organisations are retraining staff to deal with software-defined environments and new systems management platforms. They’re a different set of specialised skills that is additional to what they already have — the need for the old skills won’t go away quickly as it will be some years before the old systems are replaced with HCI.”
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