A converged infrastructure strategy requires a when as well as a why

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This article is part of our Essential Guide: Data center convergence and the role of storage

Converged infrastructure drop-off doesn't mean data center death

Traditional converged infrastructure has been supplanted by hyper-converged infrastructure and cloud computing, but it remains a solid and useful platform.

Converged infrastructure has slipped out of favor among many data centers, as they embrace cloud computing and hyper-converged infrastructure. But some IT pros say it's still a good choice for their most important business applications.

Sales within three out of four categories of converged infrastructure (CI) declined in the third quarter of 2016 versus a year earlier, according to the latest sales data from IDC.

Adoption of integrated infrastructure declined 11.4%, and certified reference systems declined 52%, attributed largely to the discontinuation of EMC's VSPEX certified reference system. Integrated platform sales also declined by almost 10% in 2016 versus 2015. The one growth area was hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), which increased by 104% in the same period.

Those declines reflect broader difficulties and shifts in customer demand in the infrastructure market, where cloud computing and HCI regularly win converts because they are easy to buy, provision and operate, said IDC analyst Eric Sheppard.

Enterprise IT shops will continue to pick HCI over CI for many architectural, strategic or even political reasons. An organization may want to buy small and grow slowly if its IT organization is visionary and seeks a new data center architecture, said Kent Christensen, virtualization practice manager for Datalink, a data center infrastructure and cloud service provider based in Eden Prairie, Minn.

Converged infrastructure is easier to get up and running versus rolling out a three-tier architecture, but it still has three discrete parts for networking, server and storage. HCI consolidates everything into a server block, with a management layer on top. CI typically involves a multiyear deployment strategy, while hyper-converged infrastructure scales out linearly and can be bought as needed.

Christensen said he consistently sees converged infrastructure purchases passed up for hyper-converged infrastructure or cloud computing. One enterprise customer's server group recently chose HCI so it could work independent of its storage team, he said. Another large CI customer rolled out virtual desktop infrastructure and chose HCI because it was newer technology.

Converged infrastructures still works

Nonetheless, the sagging adoption doesn't foretell the death of CI. Many enterprises still select CI as a more stable and agile operating environment, and to consolidate assets acquired through acquisitions.

Enterprises that already have moved to converged infrastructure have begun to shift more workloads to the cloud -- both infrastructure as a service and software as a service. For example, Microsoft Office 365 is not built on a company's converged infrastructure, and that's one reason that use is starting to flatten, Christensen said.

"It is still a very viable platform for most IT organizations," Christensen said.

One example of increased CI adoption is the FlexPod platform from Cisco and NetApp, which has increased support for all-flash arrays, Sheppard said. The two companies also have focused on so-called low-end CI deals, smaller environments valued at less than $200,000. FSA One Frameworks, a partnership between Cisco, NetApp and Avnet that combines racks and services based on common configurations, has also made FlexPod easier to install.

When Sisters of Mercy Health System in St. Louis moved into a new enterprise data center, it chose FlexPod instead of its predecessor, a traditional three-tier architecture that used Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) servers.

IT leaders at the health system planned to replace the hardware with HPE servers and storage area networks (SAN) until they looked at converged infrastructure, said Scott Richert, Mercy's vice president of enterprise infrastructure services.

He considered EMC SAN and a converged network with Fibre Channel over Ethernet because he was comfortable with Fibre Channel technology, but he was wary of its use because he was unfamiliar with other successful deployments.

At first, Mercy thought it would continue with what it had been doing -- only more of it in a new data center. "But when we discovered converged infrastructure, we really got serious about it," Richert said.

My engineers started to shine a light on how converged infrastructure would change things for us.
Scott Richertvice president of enterprise infrastructure services, Sisters of Mercy Health System

The benefits were the simplification that comes from virtualization and the consistency that comes from hosting infrastructure in a new data center. Other factors that weighed their decision toward FlexPod were the management tools with Cisco UCS Director and VMware vCenter, and the simplified backup and restore with NetApp SnapVault and SnapMirror to store multiple copies in a short time.

"My engineers started to shine a light on how converged infrastructure would change things for us," he said, as part of a move toward more automation and DevOps processes.

CI will continue to have a place in many enterprise data centers because it is seen as a way to reduce risk and take advantage of the knowledge from suppliers and partners that certify multiple systems as one, Sheppard said.

"The workloads on traditional converged infrastructure will continue to look a lot like the workloads in the data center, in general," he said. For example, a CI platform is the optimum size for a single workload, such as a SAP HANA appliance and Oracle Exadata.

Mixed workloads also will live on converged infrastructure and certified reference architectures to increase operational efficiency, reduce the cost to run and manage infrastructure, reduce facility costs and make an organization more agile.

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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