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Hyperconvergence: Redefining The Data Center

Looking at the past 20 years, virtualization stands out as one of the true infrastructure revolutions. It brought speed, efficiency and lower cost to on-premise hardware, then fueled the success of cloud computing which, in turn, is the great enabler for mobility today. P2V or physical-to-virtual has been the de-facto slogan of IT data center success.

Now the revolution is unfolding as to where the virtual machines reside. Today’s need for data-centric businesses with distributed architectures that are both flexible and scalable has given rise to hyperconvergence. Hyperconvergence coalesces storage, compute and network hardware into appliances (typically hardware) designed for better virtual machine performance along with simple management. It is a re-thinking of the data center as virtualization-enabling/empowering building blocks with inherent scalability. Hyperconvergence is an optimized platform for the VM world. 

This is very different from today’s typical ad-hoc adds of servers and SANs that result in complexity and difficult management. Just setting up a flexible SAN for shared access by high-availability systems is usually a bear, and there is a tendency to over-spend for redundancy. Hyperconvergence promises dramatically lower data center costs because of component pre-integration; appliances tend to be almost half the cost of cobbled-together systems. Operational costs are also low with significant power savings. Easier procurement, deployment and system management frees the IT staff for other projects.

Hyperconvergence is gaining traction. IDC in April of this year put 2014 growth at 162.3% with a market value of $373 million. For 2015, this is predicted to more than double to $807 million globally. There are now more than two dozen hyperconvergence vendors.  Clearly, the data center is again hot for redefinition. 

Nutanix is one of the leaders in the hyperconvergence space. The startup offers tight integration of compute, storage, networking, and virtualization resources and claims 40% to 60% savings in hardware costs with up to 8X faster time to value on deployments. It also claims power reductions of 90%. Nutanix’s 2U appliances promise to make the infrastructure metaphorically “invisible.”

SimpliVity, recently described by Forbes as a startup “unicorn” with an expected valuation of over $1 billion, offers a hyperconverged product that combines all IT services and components below the hypervisor into an x86 building block infrastructure appliance. No need to worry about discrete devices such as servers and storage; everything is in SimpliVity’s “Omnicube” system: 8 to 24 servers with 8 to 10 terabytes of usable storage in a compact, scalable, geographically dispersible system. The software-centric design is for high-availability and performance of VMs. SimpliVity claims Infrastructure cost savings of about 40% and a 300% reduction in total cost of ownership (TCO).

Nutanix, SimpliVity and other hyperconvergence companies are viewed as a threat by VMware, which has come up with its own EVO:RAIL hardware hyperconvergence product. This is a virtual SAN or VSAN approach where the VSAN is embedded into the vSphere compute cluster. Competitors claim that this approach limits flexibility and scalability, but VMware aficionados argue that the product is ideal for those starting out with virtualization, that it has low IT human resource needs, and deployment is possible in minutes. VMware Virtual SAN Ready Nodes are offered to those with greater needs and a DIY bent.

For IT departments, choosing between vendors is a matter of understanding their virtual workload needs. SimpliVity touts cloud replication as an option; a VM image running in Amazon Web Services (AWS) can be linked to an on-premise Omnicube. Meanwhile, Nutanix offers “data locality” where when you vMotion a VM to a new node on a cluster, the data store associated with the VM is pushed to that node also (this is done in the background) for better data performance. For some, VMware’s 100-VM EVO:RAIL infrastructure box built around vSphere may be the easy choice if compatibility is a concern.

While power reduction and easy scalability and management will appeal to established enterprise VM practitioners, hyperconvergence should be equally appealing at the low end to small companies. Startups creating data centers can worry less about setting up SANs and high availability servers and opt for a do-it-all appliance. Expansion as needs evolve is easy with these rack-mounted, slim-profile hyperconverged systems.

IT departments everywhere should take heed of hyperconvergence: Simple, low-cost hardware is a compelling value proposition. At the same time, the technology is still emerging and one should be mindful of critics. Some argue that hyperconvergence is rigid and presumptuous in its assumptions of scaling by adding appliances. VMs have varying appetites as to CPU hunger or IO needs and it is rare that physical memory, CPU, storage and networking needs will run out or be needed at the same time. For now, the early adopters of hyperconvergence are singing its praises.