This content is part of the Essential Guide: Modern data center strategy: Design, hardware and IT's changing role

Quick guide to what's inside new hyper-converged systems

A spate of new converged and hyper-converged systems give IT shops a potent combination of flash storage and pre-integration.

Data center managers have a handful of new converged and hyper-converged infrastructure systems to choose from, and though there are components that set these systems apart, the common denominator is flash storage.

Converged infrastructure vendors are pushing the denser, faster storage alongside more flexible networking and commodity compute as a compelling combination for modern data centers.

"All-flash will be the primary storage in data centers in the next three to five years," said Camberley Bates, analyst at Evaluator Group, an IT analyst firm in Boulder, Colo., which recently published a guide to hyper-converged infrastructure.

When all-flash comes up in the converged/hyper-converged infrastructure purchase, Bates said, it gives data centers a chance to adopt the process changes and explore the capabilities of all-flash before fully converting their storage infrastructure. Converged infrastructure takes away the integration and management hurdles of new deployments.

All-flash storage reads and writes data to solid state drives (SSDs) faster than standard spinning disks, but without assiduous wear leveling software, and can fall below enterprise quality standards. And flash is starting to approach price parity for performance with hard disk drives (HDDs), but is still a more expensive option for potentially unnecessary performance gains.

Some CI systems, such as the Oracle Virtual Compute Appliance, come in all SSD or a mixed HDD and flash storage option for in-system data-tiering.

"Users default first to the all-flash models," Bates said. "Then depending on economics and use case, look at the hybrid option."

Flash speeds enable new business cases for analytics that weren't possible with higher latency on JBOD, but that doesn't mean it's always the right choice for your application, she said.

Converged infrastructure

VCE followed up its Vblock suite of converged infrastructures with the VxBlock, released in March 2015. VxBlock System 540 is an all-flash design. It relies on Cisco networking and servers, EMC storage and VMware virtualization. VxBlock offers the flexibility to choose VMware NSX or Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI).

Oracle added the Virtual Compute Appliance to its X5 family in February 2015, with either all-flash storage or a hybrid disk and flash combo. It uses two-socket commodity Sun X4-2 servers, a break from the company's Exadata appliance, and scales from two to 25 compute nodes with 19.2 TB of memory and Infiniband networking. Oracle software automates virtualization and cloud workload provisioning and management.

Not all of the latest converged infrastructure systems follow the all-flash mantra, however. In December 2014, Cisco partnered with IBM for the VersaStack converged reference architecture, this one with Cisco UCS and Nexus and MDS 9000 switches with IBM Storwize V7000 storage arrays. It will work with Cisco ACI, like the VCE VxBlock. Storwize V7000 is virtualized storage with automated data tiering to flash and disk.

Bates recommends defining the CI uses, your goals and how you will measure its performance before shopping for a specific set of features: "Is it a standalone system for one app, or part of an overall strategy like a private cloud?"

There are noticeable variations in CI pricing, based on how many management bells and whistles go into the command software and how well the pieces integrate, she added, so the flash or hybrid approach won't easily sort into lower- and higher-Capex categories.

Hyper-flashy converged infrastructure

Hyper-converged infrastructure systems are less focused on management features and more on simplicity of integration and scaling at a competitive price, according to Bates. The value is often as primary systems in small business or remote branch offices, or as rack-and-stack units in cloud infrastructures.

Nutanix released the NX-9000 all-flash hyper-converged platform with scale-out compression and de-duplication features in October 2014. The product suits database workloads for such tasks as online transaction processing. Read requests go to server-attached flash and datastores can scale linearly on the platform. Each node uses dual Xeon E5 processors. Storage scales to six SSDs (800 GB, 1.6 TB) per node. Data travels over 10 and 1 Gb, and 10/100 BASE-T RJ45 Ethernet networks. The appliance starts at $110,000 per node.

In December, Pure Storage entered the converged infrastructure market with FlashStack CI. The system integrates Cisco UCS blade servers, Nexus switches, and VMware virtualization with its FlashArray 400 Series storage and flash-native control software. It is available integrated or as a reference architecture, with pricing set by authorized partners based on reseller, configuration and support.

Some converged infrastructure vendors target specific uses

The Citrix WorkspacePod, released in January 2015, serves up virtual desktop infrastructure. HP provides the underlying hardware platform with Moonshot ProLiant m710 Xeon-E3 nodes with integrated GPUs and ProLiant SL4540 servers with Xeon E5 processing. The appliance offers 40-Gb Ethernet connections from server to Sanbolic-managed storage: up to 45 large and six small form factor HDDs reaching 6 TB each. Citrix debuted an entry-level version as well for companies with fewer than 500 virtual desktops.

Dell put out version 2 of its XC Series appliances in February 2015. These combine Dell Xeon E5-based PowerEdge servers with Nutanix software and VMware ESXi or Microsoft Hyper-V. This system aggregates and manages the clustered server and direct-attached storage resources, and enables adopters to choose from a range of storage capacities. The boxes are hybrid flash and disk configurations, with all-flash options on the roadmap later this year. Starting price: $32,000 for XC630 configured with two 200 GB SATA SSDs, four 1 TB HDDs and a one-year Dell support; $45,000 for XC730xd with two 200 GB SATA SSDs, four 4 TB HDDs and a one-year Dell support.

EMC created a hyper-converged infrastructure product within its VSPEX line in February, adopting the VMware EVO:RAIL integration of VSAN datastore for VSPEX BLUE. The latest version of VSAN, available on EVO:RAIL later this year, supports all-flash storage. VSPEX Blue uses dual Intel Xeon E5 v2 processors in four nodes, each with four channels of memory and up to eight R-DIMMs. Storage combines 400 GB of solid state with three 1.2 TB spinning disks per node. EMC offers InfiniBand or 10-Gb Ethernet networking.

VMware's EVO:RAIL software also runs converged infrastructures from NetApp, with clustered Data Ontap storage software, NetApp FAS 2552 storage arrays and commodity servers; HP with CS 200-HC EVO: RAIL on HP ProLiant servers; and Dell's Virtual Infrastructure and VMware Horizon View Editions.

Hyper-converged vendor SimpliVity has yet to announce an all-flash configuration for its OmniCubes, stating that all-flash storage is "only suitable for portions of the data lifecycle." SimpliVity's approach is to de-duplicate and compress data in memory, SSD and HDD tiers.

Next Steps

The various paths vendors take with converged infrastructure tools

Popular converged infrastructure products -- compared

Dig Deeper on Converged infrastructure (CI)