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New hyper-converged buyers expected to enter the game in 2016

Hyper-converged infrastructure is set to replace some traditional hardware in the data center during the coming year, if enterprises can overcome organizational and budget worries.

Prospective hyper-converged infrastructure buyers sitting on the sidelines are warming up their muscles and preparing to get in the game.

In 2016, many enterprise IT buyers are likely to enter the hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) game and make a purchase, as refresh cycles come up, and more firms restructure and build teams around the new technology, according to a recent study of users' adoption patterns and processes.

One of those buyers still on the sidelines is Willy Snell, IT administrator at the Livestrong Foundation in Austin, Texas. Snell uses mostly blade servers, some of which are approaching their end of life, but he's still in "exploratory mode" when it comes to HCI. When he does buy new hardware, he will look for an option with the lowest capital expense to get as many years out of it as possible.

"You want to be in tune with the next step, whether I want to continue down that road or move toward converged," he said.

Seven years ago, Snell helped build Livestrong Foundation's new data center from scratch, buying blade servers and storage area networks. That's worked well, he said, saving energy and allowing Livestrong to scale and reduce rack space. His next step is to find ways to add value and reduce hardware costs, and HCI "seems to be the hot topic."

Snell doesn't have any major concerns about HCI, and a move to it would not be driven by applications, but would likely become an overall platform, he said.

At some point, I could see us ending life on our platform and moving into convergence.
Willy SnellIT administrator, Livestrong Foundation

"At some point, I could see us ending life on our platform and moving into convergence," he said.

HCI hasn't yet been widely adopted for several reasons, according to Nikolay Yamakawa, senior analyst at 451 Research in New York.

Large organizations often involve many people in the purchasing process and won't sign off on an unknown vendor. That will likely lead to more HCI products from incumbent vendors until confidence increases in smaller ones. Some buyers on the sidelines are watching Nutanix Inc., a San Jose, Calif., company that is one of the market leaders and plans an initial public offering later this year.

HCI customers may not stay on the purchasing sidelines much longer. An eye-popping 85% of survey respondents to a recent 451 report, Spending Trends Across Servers and Converged Infrastructure,  said their spending for HCI will grow in 2016.

Where does the money come from?

The study's respondents -- 27,000 mostly large enterprises in North America and Europe -- said converged infrastructure (CI), which includes HCI, is a "disruptive technology" that makes up 30% of their overall IT budgets.

Most of that spending is from overall infrastructure budget, but in other cases, it may also come from server and storage budgets.

"Those are the budgets that are getting exchanged for HCI," Yamakawa said.

Often, the decision about where the money comes from depends on how hyper-convergence is used. For existing workloads, it is often bought with money that otherwise would have been spent on other technologies, whereas a new workload often comes from a new budget.

"When people are implementing CI, they are looking at all the different refresh cycles to get maximum value out of implementation," Yamakawa said.

The most common scenario for CI and HCI adoption is during a technology refresh, followed by new workloads and an expansion of existing workloads. Databases and data warehouses are the most common new workloads on CI, he said.

If much of today's interest materializes into adoption, the HCI market will be a lot different by early 2017.

"I'd be cautious to say we are stepping over the tipping point," he said, even though it is getting a look from both enterprises and smaller companies.

The two main roadblocks to HCI adoption right now are organization issues and internal expertise, which Yamakawa said are interrelated. HCI means different operating models, because storage and compute are tighter, where an enterprise may need fewer server administrators and can do things faster. But those efficiencies and increased simplicity also require organizations to have the right expertise in the right place, and can often require training and organizational buy-in, often from an employee who becomes a steward for the technology.

Server sales still tower over HCI

Even with all the attention and potential for the hyper-convergence market, x86 servers continue to see high adoption, along with increased communization.

"Servers still remain a much larger market," Yamakawa said.

One segment of the server market that is experiencing "relatively low adoption" is microservers, including Moonshot from Hewlett Packard Enterprise, he said.

It is easy to get a chief marketing officer or CIO excited about HCI, but many IT pros fear that it could mean job cuts, according to Arron Marchese, director of data center solutions at LogicalisUS in Auburn Hill, Mich.

One of his customers was a Michigan hospital, with a nine-person server team that could have been replaced by a workload administrator and a few systems administrators.

Marchese's concerns with HCI are similar to those cited in the 451 study -- some buyers fear vendor lock-in and don't feel they get flexibility.

Some IT pros also may struggle with how to depreciate the value of HCI when they are otherwise used to separate depreciation schedules for servers and storage.

"Customers still buy for servers, storage and network," he said, and legacy skill sets are pervasive, with many organizations continuing to keep it separate to manage it.

The server market has been in "flux" for many years, and current changes will change the way people use and buy servers, said Andrew Butler, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, at the research firm's Data Center, Infrastructure and Operations Management conference in December.

The dividing line between a server and its inclusion as part of an integrated system will get more difficult to determine, and some vendors are moving into the server market from adjacent hardware, he said.

"We've never been more certain that, over the next four or five years, the role of what we think of the server will change forever," he said.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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