Hyperconvergence: Not just for specific workloads anymore

Hyperconvergence has come a long way in a relatively short time, and enterprises are taking advantage of the new capabilities.

Bob Violino Nov 27th 2018 A-A+
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Hyperconvergence has come a long way in a relatively short time, and enterprises are taking advantage of the new capabilities.

Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) combines storage, computing and networking into a single system; hyperconverged platforms include a hypervisor for virtualized computing, software-defined storage, and virtualized networking.

HCI platforms were initially aimed at virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), video storage, and other discrete workloads with predictable resource requirements. Over time, they have advanced to become suitable platforms for enterprise applications, databases, private clouds, and edge computing deployments.

A couple of key developments have made HCI more appealing for more workloads. One is the ability to independently scale compute and storage capacity, via a disaggregated model. The other is the ability to create a hyperconverged solution using NVMe — an open logical device interface specification for accessing non-volatile storage media attached via a PCI Express bus — over fabrics.

In general, there is a greater understanding of the value proposition of HCI, “specifically for smaller enterprises that may not need [or] want a full-scale data center infrastructure, but want to retain some control over their environments,” says Sebastian Lagana, research manager, infrastructure platforms and technologies, at research firm IDC.

“The increasing use of hybrid cloud environments by enterprises also lines up nicely with the software-defined data center story, which HCI is certainly a large part of,” Lagana says.

HCI has become a suitable platform for broader use due to a lot of the underlying improvements in the technology, Lagana says. At the same time, many enterprises have gone through an IT “refresh cycle” and HCI seems like a natural transition.

“We’ve spoken with some HCI adopters and, in some cases, folks we’re talking to are upgrading multiple generation-old infrastructure running on old, sometimes now unsupported software,” Lagana says.

“At that point, if the old server and/or storage technology they’re using is that far behind what’s now available, it becomes a matter of the level of complexity they’re seeking in their new environment.”

HCI has the required horsepower while providing a user-friendly management interface, Lagana says. “Could you run faster with a highly customized solution?” he says. “Sure, but in many cases it’s not worth the extra effort when the HCI solution will suffice and provides good long-term scalability.”

Among the key benefits organizations can see from deploying HCI more broadly are greater consolidation and simplification of the IT infrastructure, which allows IT teams to better support business objectives, Lagana says.

Other possible benefits include faster helpdesk response times, proactive understanding of potential hardware failures, the ability to quickly spin up new servers or test environments, faster disaster recovery and easier backup features.

“There are also the more mechanical benefits,” Lagana says. “Hardware consolidation provides power, cooling and facilities cost savings, which is easy to measure and is an easy sell to less tech-savvy budget holders,” he says. “Also, HCI and the underlying software makes it easier to maximize utilization of existing resources, which reduces longer-term storage and server expenses as well.”

HCI deployment scales as business expands
Celtic Manor Collection, a resort hotel and conference center operator, has been using two clusters of Dell EMC’s VxRail HCI appliance, beginning in September 2017. Among the initial business drivers for deploying HCI was that Celtic Manor was embarking on a new joint venture to build an international convention center in Wales, says Chris Stanley, IT manager.

The project required the flexibility to scale systems quickly, the ability to easily manage and maintain data center capacity with a small team, the ability to respond quickly to any outages in service, and resiliency to avoid any downtime for large-scale events at the convention center.

Celtic Manor previously had an environment that included storage-area networks (SAN) and VMware ESXi servers, but it was taking a lot of resources to maintain, upgrade, and troubleshoot, Stanley says. “The business was growing—and still is—rapidly and bursting at the seams with data,” he says. “We needed a complete rethink” to prepare the data center for the future and simplify management.

Initially the company was deploying the clusters as separate data centers for different business entities.

“When we deployed our second cluster we quickly realized we could do more if the two were able to connect over the network together,” Stanley says. “As of today, we now have our core business systems split between the two clusters, with all of these having a recover point copy on the opposite cluster. So we now have full cluster failover if required, [which] gives us a lot of peace of mind as a business.”

HCI has become “the core tech in our business, Stanley says. “With our planned business expansion of several new hotels in the next two years, we have a template with predictive costs and scalability.”

The company uses HCI for its main enterprise applications, which run on large Oracle and SQL databases. “These are using less resources than when they were in their previous environment, and we regularly monitor these to see if any servers are over provisioned,” Stanley says. Celtic Manor is preparing to roll out VDI, with up to 450 endpoints added over the next 12 to 18 months.

“With our business growing, we are looking to potentially use the HCI clusters for cloud and remote deployment for our new hotels,” Stanley says. “VxRail has given us a solid, flexible platform to grow our business.”

What has enabled an expanded role for HCI are developments in NVMe over fabrics, with CPUs having a smaller workload intensity, and greater amounts of input/output operations per second (IOPS) being achieved on a regular basis, Stanley says.

“With demands on data center performance growing to process and store vast amounts of data every second, it is great timing for the hyperconverged market to make its mark,” Stanley says.

Among the key benefits of HCI thus far are less time spent by the IT team on upgrading and maintaining the data center; improved application performance; and a 10% reduction in data center power consumption.

HCI powers county's core apps and services
Also expanding its use of HCI is the County of San Mateo, Calif., which began using Nutanix’s HCI platform in 2014.

“We originally looked at the HCI solution to solve performance issues with our VDI deployment on VMware’s Horizon platform,” says Jon Walton, CIO. “We had unsuccessfully tried to use EMC, Dell, and NetApp storage on blade servers, but kept running into high latency issues, especially as users logged into their sessions.”

After initial successes with VDI, county officials began to consider using the Nutanix HCI platform for all of its virtual workloads. “The timing was perfect, as we were starting to virtualize more and more workloads,” Walton says.

In the last two years, the county has moved all its heavier workloads running Microsoft SQL and Oracle to dedicated Nutanix clusters. Most recently, it moved its countywide voice-over-IP implementation to two dedicated Nutanix clusters running Avaya Aura on VMware ESXi.

There have been “constant improvements on every level” with HCI, Walton says. “Shortly after we adopted Nutanix, they came out with one-click software upgrades. Through their HTML5 interface, we can upgrade every element of our virtual stack—disk firmware, BIOS, Nutanix AOS, Nutanix health check and VMware ESXi—with zero downtime and almost zero interaction.”

San Mateo has already converted 99% of its Oracle and MS SQL applications to the HCI environment. It is also leveraging Nutanix’s Protection Domain replication service for remote sites to provide high availability within county data centers, Walton says.

With HCI, “instead of spending all our time reacting to problems and resource constraints, we now have the time to research smart technology choices for the county,” Walton says. “Additionally, we no longer must rely on a small group of SMEs [subject matter experts] to provide expertise around storage and servers, as Nutanix takes care of it for us.”

County residents who rely on a variety of services have also seen benefits. “They don’t know or care what we run on, they just know it is fast and has had almost zero downtime in five-plus years,” Walton says.

Hyperconvergence market trends
Demand for HCI and for data center convergence in general is on the rise. A recent report by research firm IDC shows that worldwide converged systems market revenue increased 10% year over year to $3.5 billion during the second quarter of 2018.

HCI products helped to drive second quarter market expansion, the study said, thanks in part to their ability to reduce infrastructure complexity, promote consolidation, and allow IT teams to support an organization's business objectives.

Revenue from hyperconverged systems sales grew 78% year over year during the second quarter, generating $1.5 billion worth of sales. This amounted to 41% of the total converged systems market, the report said.

IDC provides two ways to rank technology suppliers within the hyperconverged systems market, in terms of market share. One is by the brand of the hyperconverged platform and the other is by the owner of the software providing the core hyperconverged capabilities.

For brand, those with the highest share are Dell, Nutanix, Cisco, and HPE. In terms of HCI software, the leaders are Nutanix, VMware, Dell, Cisco, and HPE.

As for future developments in the hyperconvergence market, one of the growing trends is NVMe-based HCI, Lagana says. “We’re seeing flash as a major adoption driver, not just in HCI but in broader converged infrastructure and storage markets, and NVMe is the next step in that evolution,” he says.