Boxing clever with HCI

Data Centre Infrastructure
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Hyperconverged infrastructure has reached megatrend status. Niall Kitson asks what the appeal is

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19 November 2018 | 0

How seriously should we take hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI)? A good place to start finding out would be with Gartner, who earlier this year gave HCI its first magic quadrant. The research firm predicts that by 2020 some 20% of business-critical applications currently running on three-tier stacks with separate appliances for compute, networking and storage will have moved to HCI. Why the rush? Smaller form factors and faster processing have the potential to deliver more efficient data centres or on-premise clouds. The downside? One person’s convenience is another’s vendor lock-in. This presents a dilemma for the channel for who and how to pitch HCI to so the hype can be transformed into sales.

Francis O’Haire, chief technology office with Data Solutions, sees HCI as a coming technology whose uptake in Ireland is unfortunately proving slower compared to the UK. He cites the influence of “legacy vendors” who have little interest in pushing it. However, he is optimistic thanks to demand from end users. “Our partners are not as entrenched with legacy vendors and we’re finding more success with guys that are more forward looking,” he says.

O’Haire believes the time to consider HCI is when a company is adding new applications or launching a new project, allowing for a graduated adoption.

“With HCI you only need to buy enough for the next two months, three months, six months, whatever it may be,” he says. “You don’t need to think ahead four or five years. HCI comes in small clusters and grows steadily as it’s tested. Later, other applications come on board and ageing SANs and compute is transitioned over onto the growing HCI platform. One of the beauties of it is you don’t have to start big. You start with exactly what you need right now.

“The key thing is that HCI simplifies the hardware layer that can create the base for something software-defined.”

Commodified
O’Haire believes the real benefits of HCI become apparent when commodity tech combined with a hypervisor can be used to bring applications hosted on a public cloud in-house. However, with convenience comes the spectre of vendor lock-in. Data Solutions is a Nutanix partner and O’Haire says this gives customers latitude when it comes to assembling a HCI solution.

“Nutanix is just a software layer,” he explains. “They are agnostic when it comes to hypervisor, so if you want to use VMware you can do that. If you want Hyper-V, Xenserver, or if you want to use hardware from Dell, Lenovo, HP or Cisco you can do that, too. There is very little vendor lock-in other than ‘yes, Nutanix is going to be the software sitting on top’. At some point unless you go completely open source you are going to be tied to a particular software vendor anyway.

“Dell is one of the biggest OEMs for Nutanix – which is the biggest HCI vendor but not necessarily all along Nutanix tin. A lot of it is sitting on Dell or Lenovo. Even Dell will say ‘we do x amount of HCI’ when in reality it’s Nutanix is the software on their tin. We need to move away from where the hardware is king. What we’re trying to get to is where the Amazons and Googles and Microsofts are, where servers are just disposable items in the racks. We need to look at when HCI starts adding real value on top in terms of automation, analytics, machine intelligence. What we’re trying to do is make the data centre infrastructure invisible, that’s the end goal.”

Scalable
Eoin Johnston, chief technology architect with Arkphire, is already seeing market consolidation in HCI where smaller players are being bought up by OEMs.

“Any solutions I’m looking at now in 2018 are hyperconverged,” he says. “There are a couple of outliers but for the Irish market it’s a really good fit. Organisations like the simplicity of it and from a management and financial perspective it makes sense.”

Johnston agrees HCI’s ability to take certain applications out of the public cloud. “For people that have been gung ho and pushed their infrastructure to the cloud what they might find is that cloud is great for bursty stuff,” he says. “If your workload scales up and down you really get the benefit of scaling down. If you have an application that’s steady-state it can actually be quite expensive to use. That’s a mistake some people have made in adopting cloud. You wouldn’t dream of installing Exchange on a virtual machine, you should be using Office 365 and that’s the right way to consumer cloud. The question is do you bring those in-house or replace them with a cloud-native application.”

Johnston sees HCI as an opportunity to give customers more control over their workloads as opposed to an alternative to cloud.

Returning to the original question, Johnston believes there is still life in the 3-2-1 model of separate appliances for compute, networking and storage. “If you have an environment that’s very storage-heavy or compute-heavy, you should stick to 3-2-1, the traditional model,” he says. “Some HCIs allow you to scale out and scale up. The idea of every time you add another node you add more storage and compute is great – if you need more storage and compute. If you just need more storage or compute then you’re better off with the traditional.”

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