Hyper-converged Infrastructure: Ready with Flexible Options

Given that hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) is fundamentally about simplicity, it’s ironic that there is so much confusion about HCI in the market. Simply put, HCI is integrating compute, network, and storage resources on to one shared platform of ordinary x86 building blocks.

HCI is an architecture. It can be deployed in a number of different ways. Either as a turnkey appliance providing a simple, “don’t worry about it” approach for companies without the IT resources available to pour into it—an approach popular with SMBs. And it can just as easily be deployed on custom hardware for enterprises that need to extensively tinker with specs and options. HCI is a simple, cost-effective way to provision IT resources, and not an especially restrictive one.

HCI truly suffers from a bogus perception issue, said Gaetan Castelein, Senior Director, Product Marketing and Product Management, Cloud Infrastructure at VMware. “A lot of people have this perception that HCI is a low-end appliance mostly applicable for SMBs. That may have been the case a couple of years ago, but HCI has matured to the point where it is now the best building block upon which to deploy a full-blown software-defined datacenter. HCI is about moving the intelligence out of dedicated physical appliances and, instead, running all the data center functions as software. This model has benefits across all customer sizes and use cases,” he said.

The biggest single area of confusion is that HCI has to be deployed on a fully integrated turnkey appliance. VMware offers this option with EVO:RAIL for customers that need the fast deployment and ease of use. But VMware also enables customers to deploy HCI using more traditional software on custom hardware model. Customers can purchase vSphere and vSAN from VMware, and purchase custom hardware or VSAN Ready Nodes from the OEM of their choice.

“EVO:RAIL and VSAN Ready Nodes are two different consumption models, but they both lead to the same hyper-converged architecture once deployed. We are providing customers with more options. This is good because different customers can have very different needs,” said Castelein.

“If I’m a small business and I have one IT generalist, the appliance approach makes a lot of sense. I need the simplicity and I really don’t have the requirement for custom hardware,” he said. “Now, a large enterprise—for example, a bank that deploys hundreds of x86 servers every month—is going to be much more specific about the hardware it deploys on and which OEM that hardware comes from” Castelein said. Both of these consumption models can lead to a powerful HCI deployment.

VMware is also introducing a new software suite, called EVO SDDC, designed to simplify the way customers deploy the SDDC. EVO SDDC is delivered as a pre-integrated system, utilizes HCI as the underlying infrastructure building block, but also provides additional software capabilities to provide a complete SDDC solution. EVO SDDC automates the bring up of the SDDC, and provides integrated management of physical and virtual infrastructure and lifecycle management.

“Customers sometimes opt for Virtual SAN, not realizing that EVO would have been a better fit,” Catelein said. “If they’d known about the great benefits of HCI, their decision may have been different.”

Storage and data management are key issues. Castelein said he runs into customers who “spend millions of dollars on high-end storage arrays” and “they think that they have to spend this kind of money because they can’t risk losing any data.” There is this false belief that Virtual SAN “is a kind of a toy that is maybe OK for low-end use cases. The truth is that it’s a far better way to deploy storage in the enterprise. It provides very high levels of performance and can handle massive amounts of I/O with very low latency by making extensive use of flash,” he said. “Virtual SAN is also distributed across x86 nodes making it very resilient to node failures and providing access to massive amounts of processing power.”

There are quite a few pragmatic advantages to this approach. “If you want to expand capacity, you can do it incrementally. That means that you don’t have to plan it out six months ahead of time,” Castelein said, which is especially critical for retailers—Walmart, Kroger, and Domino’s are among VMware’s enterprise clients—that need to quickly boost capabilities to deal with impromptu bandwidth demands.

This kind of instant scalability and virtual storage allows for a much simpler operational approach, where technology yields to the business rather than the other way around. But educating users that this level of technology is simple is a task that is anything but simple. This will require smashing old ideas about HCI that are held by many an IT professional.