Enough negativity, let’s look at the benefits gained by using some of the more promising HCI platforms.
While often implemented as scalable node-based appliances and a server virtualization hypervisor. Many vendors use the same or very similar hardware appliances to achieve scalability and many use the same hypervisor manufacturer. What, then, are the advantages of one over the other?
In general, the advantage comes in the form of virtualized storage. Many, so called, HCI platforms are simply storage virtualization software that integrates with the hypervisor. They are just a different iteration of the same technologies we have been using for the past 10 years. Some of these bolt-on software products have been packaged in a way to appear as a comprehensive solution. However, they typically use products from three or more vendors to achieve convergence and support for these platforms is typically far from converged. Because the storage virtualization is just a plug-in for the hypervisor, traditional administration of all virtualized infrastructure resources is still required. True HCI advantage comes in the form of an overlying automation engine that simplifies daily administration vs. the addition of another management interface into an already complex system. Flexibility, scalability, simplicity and support are key.
IMHO there are a few vendors who have created products that could be classified as an excessive coming together. These vendors own the hardware, hypervisor and storage virtualization at a level that allows them to support all aspects of the platform. Having control over all components of the platform allow them to drive integration and innovation, and therefore efficiency. These efficiencies come in the form of custom administration interfaces that simplify daily tasks. The two vendors who show the most promise in this space are VCE and Nutanix.
VCE, a division of EMC, has been doing converged infrastructure for some time and has developed a strong deployment strategy and strict interoperability processes. Today VCE has two HCI platforms, the VXRail and VXRack. For comparison, we will only address VXRail in this post. The VXRail uses Quanta servers, the VMware vSphere hypervisor and VMware vSan for storage virtualization. Most of these components are owned by Dell who recently acquired EMC and majority ownership of VMware. It is assumed that the VXRail platform will drop Quanta as it’s hardware component in favor of one of Dell’s node-based server platforms (PowerEdge FX2 for example). This will create a single-vendor platform, ideally with a single vendor support model through the VCE division. The simplicity of the EVO:Rail interface, now only available on the VXRail platform, makes it a truly elegant solution. VCE has been the leader in Gartner’s magic quadrant for converged infrastructure for two years.
Nutanix is one of the longest standing HCI players and has the lion’s share of the HCI market today. They have also been in Gartner’s magic quadrant for the past two years and have been ahead of VCE from a completeness of vision perspective both years (VCE ahead in ability to execute). While Nutanix does not produce its own hardware, it does provide both the hypervisor (Acropolis) and storage virtualization components and support for the entire platform. While most of the existing Nutanix customer base leverages VMware vSphere for the hypervisor today, the push from Nutanix (and for good reason) is toward their own Acropolis. The Nutanix user interface (Prism UI) provides an advantage over other HCI solutions in that it displays all of the health information for the platform in a simple monitoring view. When using the Acropolis hypervisor, Prism UI provides the basic day-to-day functions for administration as well. On top of the required platform upgrade and growth functions, it provides virtual machine start, shutdown, reset, deployment, and snapshot functions when using Acropolis. Like the VXRail, this combination makes it a mostly complete hyperconverged solution. Flexibility to choose from vSphere, Acropolis or Microsoft Hyper-V is also a big plus for organizations that have standardized on specific virtualization platforms.
There are several other factors that should be considered when evaluating a HCI platform. All current HCI platforms exclude integrated, virtualized network control. Some, however, offer tools to simplify the configuration of, or monitoring of, external network resources. Data protection and public-cloud expansion capabilities can also differ. VCE and Nutanix provide these capabilities in vastly different ways. A thorough evaluation of business and technical requirements should be conducted before choosing a HCI platform (as with any technology). Don’t be fooled by storage virtualization plug-ins that promote themselves as hyperconverged solutions, you will be left with the traditional challenges of interoperability, integration and overly complex administration. Real cost savings from HCI come in the form of flexibility, scalability and simplicity.
After submitting the first part of this post, I became aware of another hyperconverged platform that appears to meet all of my preconceptions. This platform offers a software as a service (SaaS) management portal akin to pure cloud platforms like Azure or Amazon where all hardware provisioning can be done from a simple interface, including network. The platform is node-based like other HCI offerings where each component (storage, compute and network) can be scaled independently. With real-time monitoring, analytics, data encryption, high-availability and seamless multi-site configuration, this HCI platform appears to have it all. The only downside is the company’s age. The company (Cloudistics, Inc.) went live with their HCI platform at the end of March this year (2016) and will have to prove its support capabilities before it rivals the likes of VCE and Nutanix. Cloudistics Ignite, in my opinion, is the HCI platform that other vendors will be working to emulate. I know that I, for one, will be paying close attention to their progress.