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Containers come to hyper-converged systems, but now what?

For IT pros managing virtualized, bare-metal and containerized workloads in the data center, can hyper-converged infrastructure offer what's needed?

Apple pie and ice cream are a perfect match.

IT pros may sometime soon see a similar pairing in the data center, with hyper-converged systems becoming synonymous with containers as a great way to match applications and infrastructure.

While enterprises can go to Amazon Web Services or Azure to run containers, these public cloud environments may not satisfy IT pros seeking greater efficiency at all layers. Containers help with that at the OS level and up, while hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) helps at the hardware level -- and together, they can make a "pretty powerful combination," said Dennis Smith, a research director at analyst firm Gartner.

Adoption of Docker's container technology has quadrupled in the past year, so a solid platform to support both virtualization and containers is increasingly critical, according to Rob Steele, converged consulting systems engineer at RoundTower Technologies LLC, a consulting and managed services firm in Cincinnati.

"HCI is going to continue to become the platform and infrastructure of choice for containers and virtualization workloads," he said.

The flexibility to expand into VMs on-premises or in the cloud will be key, agreed Kiran Kamity, CEO and co-founder of containers-as-a-service startup ContainerX in San Jose, Calif. "Containers are the next phase for hyper-converged after they have exhausted the virtualized workloads," he said.

Realizing that bundling layers could create a new data center stack and architecture for agile processes and containers, vendors are starting to stake their claims with new products. The first hyper-converged infrastructure platform for containers was introduced late last year by Rancher Labs.

This month, hyper-converged systems maker Nutanix released its Acropolis Container Services (ACS), which allows VMs, nonvirtualized workloads and containers to all sit on the same Nutanix cluster.

Before ACS, Nutanix had reference architecture for do-it-yourself configurations to deploy containers in VMs and automate it through PowerShell scripts, said Prabu Rambadran, director of product marketing at Nutanix, who has a master's degree in computer science from Ohio University.

With ACS, users and developers get access to a Nutanix cluster automatically and can put down Docker Engine on a Nutanix cluster. The process was manual, but now it is automated from the command prompt, he said, with the next step putting it in a self-service portal.

ACS, now available and shipping, is the first phase of Nutanix's strategy to use existing Docker tools to deploy on top of the Nutanix infrastructure. Later this year, the second phase will use Nutanix's management tool, Prism, to deploy and manage containers -- still using Docker, but with deployment transparent to users, and the container will be the same as using a VM, Rambadran said.

The main problem hyper-converged systems makers face is a conflict between focusing on what customers are seeking now versus what those same customers may want in the future, Kamity said.

Once we get most of the applications or workloads into containers, that's when we will start to see more shifts in the underlying architecture.
Jarid CottrellJarid Cottrell, senior associate, Booz Allen Hamilton Inc.

It is still early for IT shops to make changes to their infrastructure and hardware for containers, said Jarid Cottrell, a senior associate in the cloud computing and open source practice at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. in McLean, Va. While he is interested in how users respond to Docker Engine being packaged with Hewlett Packard Enterprise's new servers, he said he thinks data centers likely will continue to invest in running containers on existing infrastructure for benefits, including portability.

"Once we get most of the applications or workloads into containers, that's when we will start to see more shifts in the underlying architecture," he said. "With our applications in a good spot, we can then decide what changes to make from there."

Beyond hyper-converged infrastructure, Cottrell said he sees the changing role of the operating system having a greater influence on all hardware -- especially in a world with containers and microservices, eliminating the need for a full-blown OS. Products from companies such as Red Hat, Rancher, Mesos and VMware's Project Photon will shrink the footprint of the OS to make it specific to containers.

"That will have a huge impact on the hardware and what you really need to implement a modern architecture," 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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