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Outside the box: Users find another way for hyper-convergence

IT pros have found a way to save money and use existing hardware with software-only hyper-convergence, the lesser-known alternative to appliance-based HCI choices.

Enterprise IT shops considering hyper-converged infrastructure might want to think outside the box -- literally.

Many IT pros view hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) as hardware-centric technology, but software-only HCI has growing appeal for some users seeking hardware flexibility and lower costs -- and one new option ups the ante with a "freemium" model.                                                                                         

Avoiding the cost of HCI appliances, such as VxRail from VMware or Nutanix Inc., with software-only hyper-convergence may resonate with many enterprise IT shops, although this may require significant legwork to source components and build it out. Enterprise users can also devote existing server, VMware and network admins to handle the configuration and installation. For that same reason, smaller businesses may be more attracted to appliance-based products from vendors such as Scale Computing and SimpliVity. Software-only approaches look good on the surface, but don't offer much differentiation, and without the appliance some of the simplicity of HCI is lost, suggests Arun Taneja, founder and consulting analyst at Taneja Group in Hopkinton, Mass.

One of the big advantages of hyper-converged infrastructure is the ability to deploy it in 15 minutes and have virtual machines (VMs) quickly up and running. "With that as your thesis, the last thing you can do is deliver a whole bunch of software and tell your customers to go find their own hardware and make sure the drivers are right," Taneja said.

Weighing HCI options: What matters most to you?

For Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., a fresh berry supplier in Watsonville, Calif, a big draw for software-only hyper-convergence was the ability to have hardware support around the world for its existing infrastructure, said Soumitra Ghosh, the firm's VP of infrastructure and data services.

Three years ago, when Driscoll first bought Maxta Inc. hyper-convergence software, Ghosh needed to ensure hardware support at distribution centers and offices in places such as Netherlands, Spain and Morocco.

Arranging support for Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Dell-EMC hardware around the world was easier than guaranteeing support from smaller startups that make appliances, he said. He started with HPE servers and later bought Super Micro Computer Inc. servers because the 4U form factor was a better fit in some of the company's remote offices.

A simple server-storage setup is much easier to support anywhere. The universality of that hardware made our decision a little easier.
Soumitra GhoshVP of infrastructure and data services, Driscoll Strawberry Associates

"A simple server-storage setup is much easier to support anywhere," Ghosh said. "The universality of that hardware made our decision a little easier."

At the other end of the spectrum is Ray DeCrescente, CTO at Capital Region Orthopedic Group in Albany, N.Y. As part of a hardware upgrade and to avoid buying EMC storage, he chose the OmniStack Integrated Solution with Cisco UCS from SimpliVity Corp., an appliance-based HCI vendor. He did not consider any software-only hyper-converged products, "because I was going for a VCE solution and then decided to go hyper-converged," he said.

'Freemium' software, not-so-free hardware

Users, analysts and vendors all point to the cost savings of software-only products. Ghosh said Maxta cost 30% to 40% less than a comparable appliance-based product. Another software-only hyper-converged maker, Stratoscale Ltd., costs a third of a similar hardware-based product or less, said company CEO and founder Ariel Maislos.

To that end, Maxta is upping the ante with a new freemium licensing model for its MxSP software, available to enterprises in the United States, Canada and some European countries starting Sept. 30. The company is offering a perpetual, transferable license to configure and deploy a three-node hyper-converged cluster with a maximum storage of 24 terabytes. A non-freemium, three-node configuration costs around $25,000, which is already one of the lowest prices in the industry, said Deni Connor, principal analyst at SSG-NOW.

The freemium software makes more sense for small, initial deployments than the more common 30-day free model since it allows users a longer timeframe to look at it, Ghosh said.

"For us, it doesn't make a difference, but for a new company trying to acquire these new types of products there is always a barrier to entry," he said.

Another big difference for software-only HCI is that it supports virtualized infrastructure on top of any hardware platform, regardless of maker, said Mitch Seigle, vice president of marketing at Maxta.

"When you buy an appliance you are buying whatever server those appliance makers chose to obtain," Seigle said.

Additionally, the profit margins in the supply chain of hardware often results in higher costs, he said.

Stratoscale's offering can also use any standard server to provide all of its functionality, with "no explicit need for specialty hardware," Maislos said.

Software-only also allows users to "leapfrog" the innovation cycle and take advantage of things such as a 100-gig network without waiting for hardware vendors to enable it, he said. However, sometimes users see software-only hyper-convergence as more complex, he added.

One Stratoscale customer, a large law firm, started with appliance-based HCI because they saw it as "an easy button," he said, but decided against further appliance purchases and instead used Stratoscale software on heterogeneous hardware. The law firm used not only its existing infrastructure but bought cheaper hardware than would be offered by an appliance-based hyper-converged supplier. It was also able to scale compute and storage independently, Maislos said.

"Modernize doesn't always mean throw everything out and start new," 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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