Data Center Building Blocks

Hyper-converged infrastructure accelerates deployments and relieves management headaches through modular approach.

The first known prefabricated house was developed by London carpenter Henry Manning in 1833 for his son who was emigrating to Australia. Based upon that prototype, Manning developed several models of various sizes and costs, advertising them as “Portable Colonial Cottages.” Anyone capable of using a wrench could erect one of Manning’s houses quickly and easily. That made them ideal for the British colonies, where skills and tools were in short supply.

Manning’s 19th-century concept is seeing something of a renaissance in the 21st-century data center. Increasingly, organizations are implementing hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) solutions — “prefabricated” IT systems that tightly integrate compute, storage, networking and virtualization resources along with management software. Preconfigured, tested and ready to deploy, they eliminate the need to design, implement and integrate data center infrastructure from scratch, reducing IT complexity, streamlining operations and accelerating time-to-value.

Those benefits have made HCI one of the hottest technologies on the market. Research firm IDC says the global HCI market surpassed $2.2 billion in revenue in 2016, an increase of 110 percent over 2015.

Even more impressive: A recent 451 Research survey found that HCI is currently in use at 40 percent of organizations, and analysts expect that number to rise substantially over the next two years.

“Loyalties to traditional, standalone servers are diminishing in today’s IT ecosystems as managers adopt innovative technologies that eliminate multiple pain points,” said Christian Perry, Research Manager at 451 Research. “Innovation inherent in hyper-converged infrastructure in particular is driving process efficiencies and agility that are increasingly tangible.”

A New Architecture

In the traditional data center model, servers, storage devices and network gear are deployed and configured independently and managed manually by teams of specialists. While this approach enables organizations to leverage “best-of-breed” solutions, it creates a siloed IT environment that often becomes unsustainable as more and more boxes are added.

To relieve the complexity and bloat, vendors developed integrated infrastructure solutions with pre-integrated components certified to work together. This approach shortens deployment time, reduces risk and provides one-throat-to-choke support.

There are drawbacks, however. Integrated infrastructure solutions are built from separate hardware components, which can lead to vendor lock-in. In addition, rigid configurations can severely limit provisioning and expansion. Many integrated infrastructure products come in standard form factors with a maximum number of disks, CPUs and RAM and no way to deviate from those configurations.

HCI overcomes these limitations through a software-defined approach that collapses core storage and compute functionality into a single, highly virtualized solution. While integrated infrastructure solutions can be separated into their component parts, HCI solutions cannot. Compute and storage functions are delivered through the same x86 server resources with automated provisioning and single-pane-of-glass management.

Another distinguishing characteristic of HCI is a scale-out architecture that enables capacity to be increased by adding modules. This building-block approach increases efficiency and helps organizations move toward a software-defined data center.

“We are seeing strong growth from products with new architectures, increased levels of automation and heavy use of software-defined technologies,” said Eric Sheppard, IDC research director, Enterprise Storage & Converged Systems.

Streamlined Approach

Although server virtualization provides greater flexibility and resource utilization, the traditional “three-tier” data center architecture essentially ties applications to specific servers. Virtual machines (VMs) can be spun up and moved on demand, but changes to storage and networking often require days or even weeks. That’s a major drag on operations at a time when IT departments are facing increased demands from an explosion of applications, mobile devices and cloud services.

HCI helps to resolve this dilemma through resource pooling. The entire IT stack is delivered as one shared resource pool, increasing agility and providing built-in resilience.

Because it integrates server and storage resources into one simple component, HCI offers a scalable and low-cost replacement for traditional storage-area networks and network-attached storage. Some HCI solutions also ship with integrated local backup and replication, further simplifying the environment by reducing the need for separate backup infrastructures.

Centralized management increases IT efficiency, reduces operational costs and minimizes planned downtime when performing patches and updates. Because it gives IT the ability to patch and upgrade software and manage the environment from one location, HCI is ideal for multisite operations.

The simplified management of hyper-convergence can also benefit small and midsized businesses (SMBs) with limited IT staff. A 2016 study by Techaisle found that 10 percent of small and 27 percent of midmarket companies planned to adopt HCI, and the research firm expects those numbers to increase rapidly as more SMBs become familiar with hyper-convergence.

Meeting Today’s Demands

The dramatic rise of HCI isn’t just changing the technological makeup of IT environments. It’s also changing the personnel who manage the technology. The larger the enterprise, the more prevalent the change — 41.3 percent of very large enterprises (10,000 or more employees) surveyed by 451 Research plan to alter their IT team layouts as a result of HCI adoption.

More than one-third (35.5 percent) of enterprises say they’ve added more VM specialists to support their HCI environments. This is more than double the number of organizations actively adding specialists in hardware-specific areas such as servers, storage and networking.

“Today’s businesses expect the same flexibility from their internal IT that a public cloud service can provide,” Perry said. “[HCI is] transforming the technology that underpins today’s business and the teams that manage it. As a result, we’re rapidly approaching the day when the generalist-driven infrastructure administrator emerges as the key cog in business operations.”

Henry Manning developed an innovative solution to meet the booming demand for colonial housing in the 19th century. HCI builds upon Manning’s concept, with “prefab” data center infrastructure that accelerates deployment, simplifies the IT environment and improves agility. The ability to deliver applications and services quickly to meet changing business requirements gives HCI an important role in the modern enterprise.