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IT justifies hyper-converged infrastructure costs

Converged and hyper-converged infrastructure can be pricey, but IT shops that use these all-in-one boxes see long-term cost benefits.

Converged and hyper-converged infrastructures combine storage, compute and network capacity with virtualization...

and the operating system into one seamless system -- with one big price tag.

While the long-term costs are cheaper than traditional infrastructure, going all in on a converged infrastructure (CI) box means a single, rather than staggered, refresh cycle. But CI buyers have a number of ways to rationalize the high investment price.

"People have to get out of the mind-set of separate compute and storage," said Wesley Kennedy, systems engineer at Carenection, which provides private ISP for hospitals from its headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. "When you buy a laptop, you don't buy storage and compute separately."

Refresh cycle

Carenection reached an inflection point where it needed to refresh both storage and servers in the data center, which is not uncommon among CI adopters.

"We needed to replace the SAN infrastructure early, forcing it up to sync with the server refresh cycle," said Steve Schaaf, CIO of Francis Drilling Fluids, Ltd., a transportation logistics service based in Lafayette, La., for customers in the oil and gas industry. Schaaf's IT team had virtualized call management and initiated voice over IP, which pushed its storage area network to capacity.

For others, the refresh cycle becomes the refresh grind, making a single infrastructure system appealing.

"Every six months to a year, we were replacing a major component," said Michael McGlade, systems and operations manager at A. Duie Pyle, Inc., a midsize, regional trucking company that covers the northeastern U.S.

McGlade was fed up with the time spent integrating, supporting and fixing "gotchas" with piecemeal replacements. His data center went from a mix of servers, centralized storage and different backup products to VCE Vblocks.

People have to get out of the mind-set of separate compute and storage.
Wesley Kennedysystems engineer, Carenection

And IT pros don't have to rip and replace their existing systems to use converged boxes. Only 27% of U.S.-based converged/hyper-converged users surveyed by Technology Business Research (TBR), an analyst firm based in Hampton, N.H., replace existing hardware with the integrated systems. About 35% complement existing hardware and 38% do a bit of both -- replace some outdated hardware but don't convert wholly to the all-in-one approach.

The move to VCE Vblocks didn't make sense for Don Peterson, enterprise server and support manager at a large housewares manufacturing company, because the company already had many similar components in place: EMC storage, Cisco Nexus switches and Cisco UCS blade servers.

"I like the Vblock concept," he said, "but we like to do things ourselves and to be able to change or add components from different vendors." For example, Peterson mixed Dell Compellent storage in with the EMC array.  

Ongoing converged infrastructure costs

McGlade projected data center spending over five years before switching from traditional infrastructure to Vblocks. Lower total cost of ownership was perceived as one of the top three reasons to adopt CI in a study by IDC, an analyst firm in Framingham, Mass., in 2013.

The danger of converged infrastructure lies in scaling -- adding whole packages when all that's needed is additional storage, for example.

"Hyper-converged will help overcome this, as [these products are] deployed and scaled out very easily," said Christian Perry, senior analyst at TBR.

Peterson was concerned about upgrade and expansion costs once locked into converged systems, another reason to stick with traditional deployment and work on tight integration.

What's in a name

Converged infrastructure: CI is a pre-integrated package of IT equipment and software with virtualization in a single chassis. Unlike a reference architecture, the pieces are already assembled and working together directly from the vendor.

Hyper-converged infrastructure: Sometimes also called CI, hyper-converged products use commodity software with a specialized software and virtualization platform to scale up easily. All the components are integrated by the vendor.

Hyper-converged users can add blocks of compute and storage as needed, unlike converged boxes, Perry said.

"Of course if you look at the cost of a CI box compared to that of a traditional server, it seems like a huge difference," said Schaaf, who converted the data center to SimpliVity OmniCubes. "But when you factor in the cost of backing up and disaster recovery, of upgrading storage, [of additional software licensing] and huge maintenance costs that I don't have on CI, it adds up."

In addition to maintenance and peripheral costs, Carenection reduced its refresh cycle costs. Rather than phase-out its Nutanix converged boxes based on age, like a standard server refresh cycle of three to five years, Kennedy says he'll wait until performance actually decreases before pulling systems from production into development.

"Performance is increasing rather than decreasing [due to programming updates]," he said. "If hardware starts to fail, then we'll look at phasing it out."

Kennedy envisions that old refresh budget reinvested in expansion, research and development, or new licenses for the business.

Choosing a CI vendor

Vendor reputation, performance and cost all weigh on companies that adopt the converged approach.

A. Duie Pyle chose Vblocks in part because it's already an EMC customer. McGlade wanted a stable, established provider for this new IT architecture.

"We're not going to take chances with our systems," he said. "Companies disappear ... sometimes overnight."

However, there are perks in using startup vendors' CI systems.

"We were taking a gamble on a new company," said Carenection's Kennedy, who was Nutanix' 29th customer. But being an early adopter with a small company allowed his team to get closer, more highly technical support from Nutanix than they would from the big-name companies.

Francis Drilling chose SimpliVity, but Schaaf took solace in the Dell platform underpinning the company's software. Ultimately, the amount of training required for Cisco UCS and other major vendors led him to purchase a system from the newer company.

While TBR's Perry says converged and hyper-converged vendors are getting better at attracting smaller enterprises to the platform, results are mixed.

"I think some of those bigger names would price us out [on converged infrastructure],"said Drew Green, IT director at Thomas, Judy & Tucker, a N.C.-based accounting firm that upgraded with a StorTrends high-performance storage area network, rather than adopting CI.

At the same time, converged infrastructure is a "great fit" for smaller shops that don't have specialized IT staff, Peterson said, noting the benefit of a "single contact ... one throat to choke."

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