The Infrastruggle

Hyperconvergence: Hype and Promise

The field is evolving as lower-cost options start to emerge.

As the Fall Trade Show season heats up, it seems like every vendor on the planet is contacting me about its new hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) product. Interestingly, they all talk about how they're superior to a dedicated storage hardware platform like Nutanix or VMware EVO:RAIL, as though that should impress the buyer. For those not up on the marketecture, hyper-converged infrastructure is a relatively meaningless term usually associated with the cobbling of a commodity server with some commodity storage, all glued together by a hypervisor and software-defined storage stack.

Since these components are integrated before you buy them, the HCI appliance is said to be "converged."  And I guess because there's so much hype around it, it's "hyper." And since it's a mostly tin and plastic kit and intended to be rolled out and racked up immediately in response to fast-changing business workload requirements, it's called "infrastructure."

The Buzzword Bottomless Pit
Bottom line: HCI is yet another cool sounding buzz phrase from an industry that seems to have a bottomless pit of them. At first, I was delighted to see some of the small fries in the software-defined storage (SDS) space link up with some server hardware vendors to create HCI appliances. It was a potentially effective counter to the efforts of VMware and other hypervisor vendors to create hypervisor-centric SDS stacks that actually locked in consumers to the hypervisor vendor's ideas about computing and storage. In general, hypervisor-centric SDS could only be used with data from workloads virtualized using that hypervisor.

The first hypervisor-neutral HCI kit I was aware of was one from DataCore Software, featuring its SDS solution blended with some Huawei server and storage hardware. On digging, I discovered that it had relationships with a number of server vendors, including Cisco UCS, Fujitsu and Dell. Lately, it's been tapped by Lenovo to do the HCI dance (together with SimpliVity and StorMagic; Lenovo, it seems, prefers different solution sets for different use cases). The DataCore SDS play is gaining importance for reasons that will become apparent when certain information goes public in a few weeks or so. Watch this space.

Shopping for Bargains
Other vendors, like StarWind Software, worked out arrangements with secondary market vendors, like xByte Technologies, to add value to used/refurbished server and storage gear offered by that vendor. Combining previously-loved hardware with hypervisor-neutral SDS wares delivers HCI at a much reduced cost to consumers who can't afford the costly VMware alternative. StarWind makes an excellent product that can be used with either VMware or Hyper-V hypervisors. It requires a minimum of two storage nodes behind a hypervisor server, rather than the minimum three behind VMware's Virtual SAN. So buyers are already saving a third of the cost of HCI doing things StarWind's way.

More of these types of announcements will be forthcoming this week and over the balance of the month. The server vendors love these relationships because, once again, they can exert some brand presence at a time when the "commodity" moniker has been used to paint all server wares indiscriminately. If you're Lenovo, Huawei, HP, Dell or Cisco, that smarts!

As for the storage vendors, this HCI stuff is a mixed bag of fun. Most storage array manufacturers are losing ground to the software-defined woo, and like server peddlers, are being characterized as vendors of undifferentiated commodity wares. One, Nutanix, has been in the news a lot since July for getting up in VMware's grill by instantiating its own hypervisor (well, a KVM open source stack called Acropolis) on its own "array-controller-qua-motherboard." This is HCI from the bottom up -- with the storage vendor hosting the apps -- instead of the top down, with the server doing the hosting. However, for the most part, the storage behind SDS is pretty generic, while the servers are getting a bit more brand respect with the increasing adoption of the HCI appliance concept.

One show I am anxious to be keynoting in October is the Association of Service and Computer Dealers and the North American Association of Telecom Dealers (ASCDINATD) confab in Montreal. There, I will meet with some of the largest secondary market equipment vendors in the world to discuss how they can get in on the HCI craze. Chances are, however, that I will not need to do much promotion of the concept, which benefits users by enabling them to build pretty good infrastructure using the storage and servers they already have or by using some previously owned, off manufacturers' warranty gear at a fraction of the cost of a "mint in box" appliance, server or storage rig.

Just yesterday, one of the largest secondary market vendors, Curvature, announced a partnership with DataCore in which the software from the Ft. Lauderdale vendor will be used with pre-owned, refurbished and re-warrantied hardware sold by the Santa Barbara-based IT infrastructure and services provider. I already like the model of Curvature (and many of its fellows in ASCDINATD) that enable even smaller firms to afford and use top of the line server, network and storage gear, albeit second-hand or off-lease. Now that DataCore's SDS platform software can be deployed like an umbrella over all this perfectly good tin, things get even less expensive.

Adding Value
Through the use of DataCore technology, most services that used to be provided on proprietary array controllers, including capacity virtualization, are centralized into a DataCore software service running on an array. Thus, there is no need to re-up licenses for pricey "value-add" software functionality on that EMC, HDS, IBM or other array.

Plus, the latest innovation from DataCore -- something called Parallel I/O that I'll be writing about in greater detail in my next column -- promises to convert that Curvature gear (or any other hardware platform with which DataCore's SDS is used) into the fastest storage infrastructure  on the planet -- bar none. Whether this new technology from DataCore is used with new gear, used gear, or to build HCI appliances, it rocks. More later.

About the Author

Jon Toigo is a 30-year veteran of IT, and the Managing Partner of Toigo Partners International, an IT industry watchdog and consumer advocacy. He is also the chairman of the Data Management Institute, which focuses on the development of data management as a professional discipline. Toigo has written 15 books on business and IT and published more than 3,000 articles in the technology trade press. He is currently working on several book projects, including The Infrastruggle (for which this blog is named) which he is developing as a blook.


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