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New hyper-convergence entrants seek a spot in enterprise IT

Hyper-convergence can simplify IT operations by bringing together compute, storage and networking hardware with virtualization and management platforms, but it must break out of limited uses.

Not every hyper-convergence product can claim it has something for everyone, and in some cases, the growing technology has become simply one arrow in a quiver.

Data services are being heaped into some of the leading hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) platforms, but other options look at meeting the specific needs of a workload or location.

Cisco is the latest entrant into the hyper-convergence market, with its HyperFlex system co-developed with Springpath, while Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) has added the HC 380 to its existing hyper-converged appliances. They join a market that is full of startups, including Nutanix, SimpliVity and Scale Computing.

"From the IT decision maker's viewpoint, it can ... be overwhelming," said Colm Keegan, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc. (ESG), an analyst firm in Milford, Mass.

Two or three companies sell most of the hyper-converged infrastructure systems, and some of the current HCI vendors "will go away," predicted Eric Slack, senior analyst at Evaluator Group Inc., in Boulder, Colo. Last year, for example, Nimboxx closed.

The two newest HCI offerings come from enterprise-focused vendors that already sell converged infrastructure, he said, showing that those companies are taking this market more seriously.

"It's not really crowded," he said. Companies, such as HPE and Cisco, differentiate themselves by offering HCI as part of a broader portfolio, making HCI part of consolidating infrastructure into a hybrid cloud environment -- something with which many businesses struggle, Keegan said.

In a 2015 survey, ESG found 20% of IT leaders offered IT as a service, nearly twice as many as in 2013 (11%). That number should be even higher, according to Keegan, and HCI should be part of that push.

Vendors can help IT shops move from virtualization to a highly virtualized environment, with capabilities such as rapid elasticity, which allows them to deploy resources and tear them down. Test and development is one enterprise use for the flexible capacity.

"Once businesses have that, they have the ability to spin up resources on prem and also in the cloud," he said.

Hybrid cloud capability is a "core functionality" of HPE's HC 380, which is built on the company's flagship ProLiant 380 server, explained Paul Delory, a research director at Gartner, who focuses on hyper-converged infrastructure. It is part of HPE's broader converged infrastructure portfolio that each have a best set of uses and incorporate its StoreVirtual VSA software-defined storage.

For situations where a hyper-converged platform may not make sense, or if a user needs more scale, they could move to the ConvergedSystem 700, Delory noted.

Some of the hyper-converged vendors sell you a hammer and will try to convince you that every problem is a nail.
Paul Deloryresearch director, Gartner

"Some of the hyper-converged vendors sell you a hammer and will try to convince you that every problem is a nail," he said. SimpliVity and Nutanix, for example, have "a very strong data services story."

HPE, on the other hand, doesn't need to offer all the data services seen in other vendors' products, such as data deduplication and compression, he said.

Above all, buyers should choose an architecture that most closely aligns to their workload. For example, encrypted data can't be deduplicated, and large relational databases aren't good for performance either.

"This whole market really is use case-driven," Delory said. "There is a proliferation of architectures in the hyper-converged market, and there are pros and cons to each."

HPE's use of StoreVirtual VSA as a foundation for its hyper-converged infrastructure, built from an existing software-defined storage product, provides some flexibility, because users can take HC 380 and connect it to existing StoreVirtual VSA, rather than buying more general-purpose compute nodes, Evaluator Group's Slack said.

Hyper-convergence also forms the basis of composable infrastructure, an idea championed by both HPE and Cisco.

IT organizations trying to get out of a three- to five-year buy and refresh cycle may be drawn to a HCI deployment to avoid data migration and, instead, retire nodes when necessary, Keegan said.

A lot of buyers are not tier-one data center administrators, and will not "tweak the dials" of HCI.

"This is a plug-and-play, use-driven situation for a lot of folks," so always-on data services could use CPU overhead that might be desired for performance. It also could be a waste, if data does not depuplicate or compress well, Keegan said.

The architecture of some appliances can help -- SimpliVity uses an I/O accelerator card to offload the processing of data services, for example. That said, most people want data services on all the time, and most of the HCI appliances scale up well beyond the I/O throughput needs of most environments, he said.

Once relegated to being the home of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), hyper-converged infrastructure is finding new and growing uses around the enterprise IT environment.

The HC 380 can connect to Microsoft Active Directory for role-based access into systems, connect to VMware vCenter and allow users to deploy HPE Helion CloudSystem 9 for hybrid cloud.

"We've linked it to various parts to create a simple experience," said Paul Durzan, HPE's vice president of product management for software infrastructure and orchestration management. "I think there is a bigger market than exists today for having a simplified, integrated system," he said.

Companies such as HPE have a chance to make HCI about more than VDI, even as the first step into HCI remains VDI or remote and branch office IT, Durzan said. HPE emphasizes that hyper-converged infrastructure is not all or nothing, and is a way to lead to broader capabilities, moving from static to dynamic applications, all managed from the same infrastructure, meeting compliance and security requirements and consumed on or off premises, Durzan said.

Some IT organizations may also be drawn to management tools with which they are familiar, including OneView from HPE and a connection to Cisco Integrated Management Controller.

"My view of hyper-convergence is that it is a management platform for the software-defined data center," Delory 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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