HCI: The Journey to Hyperconvergence

By Brandon Dockery April 10, 2020
hci data center

The data center has gone through many transformations, but none so pronounced as that of virtualization. Data center footprints contracted greatly and opened the way for converged infrastructure with pre-qualified designs for storage, compute, networking, and virtualization.

There have also been similar shifts for IT teams. The number of people required to manage the modern data center is reduced. Generally, though, it does still require trained engineers to manage the complexities for each product and solution.

Reduced Complexity with HCI

Enter hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) solutions. HCI strives to be a software-centric solution for further virtualization of infrastructure. It requires a hypervisor to virtualize the compute, virtual SAN (software-defined storage), and virtualized networking (software-defined networking). It merges the management of these components into a single pane of glass—often directly in the hypervisor GUI—to help reduce data center complexity.

HCI software can be installed on commodity hardware or sold as purpose-built appliances. The resources available on the hardware are virtualized and managed via the HCI solution. Policies control the distributed layout of data on disk and the level of redundancy for data (to withstand failures).

Other differentiators between HCI products include:

  • Bundled capabilities such as data efficiency technologies (deduplication, compression)
  • WAN optimization features
  • Backup/disaster recovery (replication) solutions

You should confirm that data protection features available within HCI can accommodate the requirements of your business. If any gaps are identified, determine how external backup or data protection products can be integrated to supplement the solution.

Compute and Storage Considerations

Compute and storage are available on each HCI node. If more of either resource is needed, additional nodes will grow both resources. This can lead to more compute or storage installed than is needed. Most solutions require that a significant portion of the available resources be reserved for a storage controller VM that runs on each physical host. All I/O runs through those VMs in order to lay out data across nodes. Some solutions, like VMware’s vSAN, integrate directly with the kernel so that storage operations execute directly on the hypervisor hosts and do not require special controller VMs.

Simple Deployments

Another major part of the intellectual capital of any HCI provider is the simple deployments via a wizard. The solution can be running within hours—not days. Likewise, simple processes are in place to grow or replace nodes to make the solution scalable when additional resources are needed. HCI can provide agility (similar to that of a public cloud) while maintaining on-premises control. The simple installation and management require less technical depth to operate the product. Rather than needing skilled engineers to manage each component of a converged deployment, IT generalists can be trained to manage the virtual infrastructure and the HCI components.

Great for Your IT Toolbox

The early days of HCI were targeted at VDI deployments and other predictable workloads. Over time, this has expanded to accommodate most use cases. Native NVMe support has helped to close the gap on performance concerns with high I/O workloads paired with low latency requirements.

HCI will not replace the need for converged infrastructure in very large environments, but it has a place in small- and mid-sized environments or when evaluating growth demands outside standard data center refreshes. All options have pros and cons, but HCI can be a great addition to your IT toolbox.