Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) is a disruptive technology, representing one of the most transformative advances in enterprise IT in the last decade.
The technology and the market for HCI have matured considerably since the first commercial offering in 2011 with at least 15 different vendors now offering solutions. What does HCI look like today? This blog provides a quick introduction to the technology, and then describes what prospective users should now expect from a state of the art HCI solution.
Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) uses intelligent software to combine and virtualize compute, storage, and in some cases networking into an integrated software stack under unified management. HCI eliminates the silos of traditional IT infrastructure, bringing together formerly disparate tools and teams to radically simplify the process of IT service delivery and maintenance.
In the broadest sense, HCI provides cloud-like flexibility and agility, but with the control and security of an on-premise deployment. HCI offerings with a fully integrated stack allow companies to quickly provision applications – whether test and development or mission-critical in production – enabling rapid response to changing business demands and faster innovation.
Traditional legacy IT infrastructure has relied on specialized, proprietary hardware. In contrast, HCI utilizes industry-standard x86 servers equipped with direct-attached storage to form modular, distributed, and easily scalable infrastructure building blocks. In lieu of storage area networks (SAN) and network attached storage (NAS), HCI pools direct-attached storage across servers into virtualized storage.The system distributes data across servers in the cluster, providing resiliency. Along the same lines, the more servers in the cluster, the greater the availability and system uptime.
HCI should be simple and easy to use
One of the most obvious and significant benefits that HCI offers is simplicity of design and ease of use. The best HCI solutions prioritize this, providing a single OS, a single installation, a single upgrade, a single pane of glass for monitoring, managing, and controlling IT operations, and a single number to call for support.
One of the biggest drawbacks of traditional three-tier architecture is that administrators must contend with multiple vendors and a patchwork of disparate and poorly aligned technologies for each level of the infrastructure. To get the most out of your HCI investment, look for a single point solution that pulls everything into a single control panel, from storage and compute infrastructure all the way up to virtual machines and the underlying hypervisor. Ideally, your hypervisor should be built-in and license-free. If not, it’s another layer of complexity and expense.
A fully-integrated HCI solution will streamline maintenance and upgrades, simplify workflows, and facilitate monitoring and forecasting. Your solution should allow you to transform vital maintenance like upgrades and capacity expansion into a matter of a few clicks done during the middle of a work day with no downtime.
IT should never again have to suffer through weeks or even months of planning with multiple teams, weekend rollouts, and service disruption. The best HCI solutions also fully leverage AI and machine learning, automating a wide range of tedious and repetitive operational tasks, and orchestrating the more complex ones. Machine learning algorithms should also offer workload-specific recommendations for optimizing your infrastructure over time.
RELATED: Learn how simple and easy HCI can be in the guide to HCI for dummies.
HCI should lower risk
The simplicity that HCI delivers provides value far beyond easier day-to-day operations and maintenance. It also means lower risk. HCI lowers competitive risk because greater IT agility translates to increased innovation and faster speed to market. It lowers budgetary risk by eliminating the need to overprovision – no more making purchases based on best guesses for what your IT needs will be for the next three or four years. The right HCI solution allows you to buy only what you need, and then pay as you grow, adding as little as a node at a time.
Finally, the right HCI solution lowers financial risk. The complexity of three-tier architectures significantly increase risk as each system layer adds to the cumulative risk of suffering service failure and exponential business costs from lost revenue, lower productivity, and a damaged reputation. Complexity also increases risk by causing teams to avoid conducting routine maintenance and upgrades, a behavior that effectively locks companies into security and performance problems.
HCI should run any enterprise application, at any scale
Enterprises live or die by their applications, and thus the underlying infrastructure must be robust, resilient, and powerful enough to run the full gamut of workloads – and run them well. One way to be sure that your HCI can really deliver is to check its certifications for the most demanding and resource-hungry enterprise workloads, such as SAP HANA. You can also use established benchmarks, such as HammerDB, to see how popular databases including SQL Server and Oracle perform on your solution.
Be sure that your HCI solution utilizes cutting-edge technologies such as NVMe and RDMA to deliver the performance that write-heavy, mission-critical workloads require. A best of breed HCI platform can support it all, whether it’s databases, ERP, big data, unified communications, or VDI. Thanks to HCI, businesses no longer have to turn to bare metal for performance, three-tier for virtualization, or public cloud for agility. The right HCI delivers all of these benefits as well as efficiency and scalability.
HCI should be hardware agnostic
We all have our preferred server manufacturers. There’s no reason you should have to give that up to get the benefits of HCI. You should have the option to install HCI software on your hardware of choice, or to purchase pre-configured hardware appliances. With appliances, all you have to do is rack, stack, and plug it in to start deploying VMs and running apps. If you don’t want to be bothered with managing the hardware, but want HCI on-prem, some hardware vendors and service providers allow you to get HCI as an on-prem managed service.
Next generation HCI also gives you flexibility around issues like cluster configuration, which is especially important for covering all of your specific use cases. You should be free to create heterogeneous clusters, including mixing hardware generations, hybrid and all-flash, as well as storage-heavy and compute-heavy servers. This allows users to create clusters made up of servers tailored to their specific challenges.
For example, remote office and edge deployments typically need less storage capacity and compute resources, but still need the centralized management and high availability offered by HCI. There are also use cases that require asymmetrical scaling. When CPU, memory, or storage consumption grows unevenly, or faster than anticipated, users should be able to easily and non-disruptively add servers to the cluster. The same applies for performance characteristics, such as adding all-flash or higher speed processor nodes, which are more compute dense.
In terms of procurement, ripping and replacing your hardware every three to five years is time-consuming, wasteful, and risky. A better approach is to choose an HCI solution that lets you plan for near- and mid-term needs and then simply optimize as necessary over time by adding nodes that are an exact fit for the environment. The right HCI will allow you to make purchase decisions based on desired business outcomes, rather than upgrade cycles.
HCI should be cloud agnostic
Apps rule the day now, which is why most companies consider hybrid cloud the ideal IT operating model. True hybrid cloud functionality will allow you to fully accommodate your business requirements, which may dictate that certain apps run in a public cloud – especially for resource elasticity – while others run on-prem, typically for greater economics, compliance, or security concerns.
As public and private cloud options proliferate and mature, this mixing and matching will persist. To this end, be sure that you choose an HCI solution that was designed to transcend the boundaries of public and private cloud (and to support edge use cases as well, the next frontier).
Look for an HCI solution that lets cloud operators extend, burst, or migrate applications across clouds, without re-architecting or retooling for each environment. The majority of apps eventually migrate back on prem once their resource requirements are established. Lifting and shifting to and from the cloud is costly and time consuming. Make sure your HCI solution is designed to facilitate this movement. Public cloud skill sets are hard to come by, so the ideal HCI solution allows you to use the exact same tooling and skill set whether working on-prem or in the cloud.
HCI should also integrate new mission-critical cloud services as well, whether it's desktop as a service (DaaS), disaster recovery as a service (DRaaS), database as a service (DBaaS), container orchestration, automated application lifecycle management, or cloud monitoring and governance.
HCI should have security-in-depth by default
Few would dispute that security is a paramount concern, but how many of us are security experts? This is why it’s essential to choose an HCI solution equipped with features like self-healing STIGs that automate and enforce security configuration, remediation, and hardening. This capacity reduces the risk of human error and saves weeks of going through endless spreadsheets with checklists of manual tasks.
HCI must have excellent support
This one is non-negotiable. First-rate support is not a “nice to have” criterion. You must have stellar technical support; when you need help, you need fast access to experts who can resolve your problem ASAP. This requires well-trained support staff and a support organization that is truly customer-focused – no long wait times and endless handoffs.
Every vendor says they have great technical support, but you don’t want to wait until you are in the middle of a crisis to find out if it’s true. Be sure to check independent sources for evaluation metrics, such as the Net Promoter Score (NPS), which measures customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Finally, don’t forget to look at your HCI solution’s roadmap. Make sure that the HCI solution you choose is not merely best of breed today – it must have a vision squarely focused on where enterprise IT is heading (such as hybrid cloud and edge computing) and that its architecture is flexible enough to accommodate what’s on the horizon and beyond.
HCI should elevate IT and the business
In the end, enterprise IT strives to empower and delight its customers, maintain security, and grow the business. Achieving all three of these is nearly impossible when you devote almost all of your resources to merely keeping the lights on.
A simple, flexible, robust, and scalable HCI solution can free you to align with the business and execute on tasks that deliver real business value, such as driving strategic initiatives that spur innovation.