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How hyper-convergence is changing the shape of IT

Computer Weekly looks at how the hyper-converged market is hotting up, pulling together the latest analyst research findings

According to 451 Research’s Voice of the enterprise survey of IT buyers from September 2016, hyper-converged infrastructure is currently used by 40% of organisations, and the analyst company expects this to rise substantially over the next two years.

In the survey of 750 IT professionals, a quarter indicated that they had hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) either in a pilot phase, or in plans for future adoption.

The analyst firm believes hyper-converged infrastructure is evolving from supportive, edge infrastructure into a primary component of today’s IT organisations. In the survey, almost three-quarters of IT professionals said their organisations were currently using hyper-converged systems in their core or central datacentres. This signals a transition in IT buyers now thinking about server purchases, says 451 Research.

Innovative technologies

Christian Perry, research manager at 451 Research and lead author of the Voice of the enterprise: Servers and converged infrastructure – organizational dynamics report, says: “Loyalties to traditional, standalone servers are diminishing in today’s IT ecosystems as managers adopt innovative technologies that eliminate multiple pain points. Innovation inherent in converged systems and in hyper-converged infrastructure, in particular, is driving process efficiencies and agility that are increasingly tangible.”

For instance, lubricant company WD-40 moved from its incumbent IT hardware provider to Nutanix to provide a more flexible IT infrastructure. Explaining the switch, Mark Breed, IT services manager at WD-40, says: “We started out by looking at adding to our traditional three-tier infrastructure. However, the solution proposed by the existing supplier would have exceeded all the spare capacity in our racks, requiring the addition of new servers, extra storage trays and SAN [storage area network] switching hardware. In the worst-case scenario, we would have needed to install more racks to cope with what was required.”

Some hyper-converged systems are based on highly integrated appliances, while others are software-based, making them hardware agnostic. Each approach has its benefits and drawbacks. In a recent Computer Weekly article, Clive Longbottom, founder of analyst Quocirca, noted: “Being able to apply HCI software against existing hardware provides obvious cost savings in not having to purchase new hardware, but the lack of highly engineered interconnects and internal data buses counts against gaining the highest possible performance from the resulting platform.”

The Forrester Wave: Hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) Q3 2016 market assessment report defines hyper-converged infrastructure as an approach to technology infrastructure that packages server, storage and network functions into a modular unit and adds a software layer to discover, pool and reconfigure assets across multiple units quickly and easily without the need for deep technology skills.

The main benefit is the ability to scale infrastructure by paying for the additional hyper-converged appliances that combine storage and compute as the needs of the business grows.

Forrester’s Richard Fichera explains the core principles of hyper-converged systems in the report: “At the core of the hyper-converged value proposition is the simplicity of scaling the cluster, which, in part, derives from the co-provisioning of compute and storage resources in pre-integrated modules.” This means technology buyers must rely on the know-how of the hyper-converged suppliers that the ratio of compute and storage they sell is correct, he says.

What this means in practice is that suppliers need to make well-informed assumptions with their initial offerings. To provide greater flexibility, many offer modules with differing levels of compute and storage, says Fichera. Some suppliers also offer appliances that can access and federate external storage resources.

When assessing products, one of the key criteria is the ability to manage software-defined infrastructure. Forrester says the core value of a hyper-converged system is the simplicity it brings to the management of virtual machine (VM) storage. “Hyper-converged systems must also provide a software abstraction of the federated storage of the physical nodes and present this storage to the hypervisor,” the analyst company noted in its 2016 market evaluation report.

The third criterion identified in Forrester’s market assessment is automatic discovery and configuration. “The hyper-converged system must be capable of discovering and adding a new resource to the environment with minimal operator interaction,” says Fichera.

While this is hard to quantify in terms of administrator time, as a guide, Forrester suggests it should be possible to add a new module with an additional 20-100TB of storage to a hyper-converged system in no more than 15 minutes of admin time. Also, the reconfiguration of the hyper-converged system should happen automatically, without the need for any administrative intervention on the existing nodes on the system.

Third-party management tools

Another criterion to consider is the ability to use third-party management tools. ”Management must be largely within the purview of the hypervisor console, enhanced further with APIs  [application programming interfaces] for integrating with other automation tools such as cloud management suites,” the Forrester report notes.

Fichera adds: “Other than initial setup, avoid manually managing hyper-converged systems from the command line, as this is costly and prone to errors. Local system management must be minimal, with extensive automation of management tasks.”

Forrester places Nutanix as the biggest provider of hyper-converged infrastructure, offering what the analyst believes is among the largest managed clusters, with more than 100 nodes in its largest customer clusters. Nutanix and SimpliVity sit as the market leaders in converged systems, while the analyst rates established players such as Dell EMC, HPE and Cisco as “strong performers”.

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The way ahead for HPE

Earlier this year, HPE acquired SimpliVity for $650m to strengthen its stack in the hyper-converged market. In effect, HPE bought SimpliVity’s OmniStack product, which Forrester rates as one of the market leaders. Before the acquisition, HPE’s rival offering, combining its ProLiant DL380 server, StoreVirtual IP SAN technology and OnView systems management, was considered less mature.

In a blog post about the acquisition, Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-It, said: “Adding the company to its quiver should be a plus for HPE, and it also complements its other recent hybrid cloud acquisition, CloudCruiser.

“But the way ahead for HPE may not be as simple as it assumes. Like Nutanix’s solutions and those of other software-defined, hyper-converged players, OmniStack can run on virtually any x86-based server and SimpliVity was a strategic partner with several Intel-based hardware vendors, including Lenovo and Dell EMC. HPE is obviously planning for its own Proliant systems to become the platform of choice for OmniStack, but it would be surprising if SimpliVity’s former partners don’t try to secure those customers for themselves.”

Dell is gaining hyper-converged capabilities through its EMC acquisition. Forrester notes that EMC’s VMware-based VxRail appliances are likely to make up most of its volume sales through direct and channel partners. The product set comprises x86 servers, VMware VSAN software and value-added EMC installation and admin software.

Meanwhile, Forrester says that while Cisco has had a strong relationship with SimpliVity, it has also entered the HCI market with its own product, HyperFlex systems, which aims to offer tight integration with its own UCS servers.

HCI has huge potential to replace small to mid-size, general-purpose disk arrays in highly virtualised, general-purpose environments. However, many mainstream enterprise IT directors do not yet trust HCI systems to deliver multi-petabyte capacity at scale for Tier 1 mixed workloads that require low latency, according to analyst Gartner.

Its 2016 report on the state of play in the hyper-converged market, Beware the ‘myth-conceptions’ surrounding hyper-converged integrated systems (HCIS), discusses common misconceptions about these systems.

“One of the pointed comments arising from our live chats was that, when all capacity utilisation and costs are considered, modern hybrid or solid-state-array-based deployments are likely to be more economical in the long haul than software-defined storage,” says Gartner distinguished analyst George Weiss in the report.

Weiss says such IT directors tend to look for systems that can offer backup and recovery, wide geographies, large user groups, partitioned and secure access, and require supplier expertise and in-house expertise. “HCIS might not be a great fit for all storage workloads,” he says. “The inability to predict a storage-to-compute ratio for mixed use cases in enterprises might result in inefficient utilisation of either compute or storage components in HCIS.”

What is interesting from the analysts’ assessments of the market is that the major server and storage providers are starting to take HCI more seriously. HPE has made a big bet with SimpliVity, while Dell is starting to piece together something of an HCI roadmap based around VxRail and VSAN.

Among the areas CIOs and IT directors need to look at is how admin skills work out when hyper-converged systems are used. 451 Research’s enterprise survey of IT buyers found that converged infrastructure is a catalyst of this ongoing IT team transformation. More than one-third (35.5%) of enterprises say they have added more VM specialists as a result of adopting standard converged systems. This is more than double the number of organisations actively adding specialists in hardware-specific areas such as servers, storage and networking, according to 451 Research.

The analyst firm’s Perry says: “Businesses expect the same flexibility from their internal IT that a public cloud service can provide. Converged and hyper-converged infrastructure is transforming the technology that underpins business and the teams that manage it.” This means the make-up of IT infrastructure teams will change, says Perry, with the generalist-driven infrastructure administrator emerging as the key cog in business operations.

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