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HCI software platforms come with challenges, benefits

HCI vendors offer software-only options that allow IT to steer clear of lock-in and scalability concerns. However, commodity hardware that matches HCI software can be hard to come by.

Hyper-converged infrastructure comes with a degree of vendor lock-in and can lack the basic freedom to grow each resource separately. But now, with software-only hyper-converged, it is possible for users to provide their own hardware systems and apply HCI software over the top. This essentially mimics the functionality of an HCI appliance but offers more flexibility.

Hyper-converged infrastructure is good for running multiple workloads on the same underlying hardware and is often marketed as a cloud-in-a-box system with elastic resource allocation, high resource utilization and low manual systems management requirements.

Early instances of HCI targeted virtual desktop infrastructure deployments. But now, far more workload types can benefit from HCI.

The current HCI software landscape

HCI software-based systems have been available for some time, but the term hyper-converged is often misused in these instances. Vendors such as DataCore and VMware offer software-only HCI products. However, these systems focus on an optimized storage platform that uses compute power to enhance how IT deals with storage, rather than running production compute workloads. Hyper-converged is a complete platform in a single system that includes compute for any workload, storage and networking. The aforementioned systems are really just software-defined storage systems loaded onto commodity hardware.

There are software systems that provide a build-your-own-HCI capability. For example, Pivot3 provides software-only systems that can run on a customer's own hardware, as well as fully configured HCI appliances. Hewlett Packard Enterprise SimpliVity offers a software-only system wrapped on HPE's hardware.

Red Hat released Red Hat Hyperconverged Infrastructure, a single software system that combines Red Hat Enterprise Linux with Gluster Storage, Ansible automated provisioning and Red Hat Virtualization. Cisco offered a Springpath-based version of its Unified Computing System hyper-converged platform under the HyperFlex brand. But with Cisco's acquisition of long-term partner Springpath, the company has full access to Springpath's software HCI stack and now has the opportunity to offer a software-only system that can run on any mix of x86 servers, storage and networking.

Challenges of HCI software-only platforms

Many fully engineered HCI systems are not completely commoditized hardware builds. Although they use Intel CPUs, standard networking cards and storage disks, they may contain proprietary aspects, such as specialized interconnects between the systems. Such approaches ensure that data can traverse the system in the fastest possible manner.

Even where there are commoditized hardware aspects, the vendor has likely optimized the software to work with the hardware. Vendors generally prefer known hardware stacks and architectures over software-based HCI systems so that they can provide support based on known parameters. If a user goes rogue and takes a set of servers from vendor A, a set of storage arrays from vendor B and network systems from vendor C, it becomes impossible for the software vendor to support all possible mixes.

Benefits of HCI software-only platforms

If you can choose the right mix of hardware for the software to sit upon, then HCI software-only architecture could be the right fit for your organization. The software should provide a better overall platform compared to standard hypervisors and a cloud layer over hardware alone. The resulting HCI platform can provide better software provisioning, monitoring and management capabilities. You can gain additional flexibility around overall resource utilization rates and dynamically swap workloads in and out as required. You may also have better capabilities when you want to use the HCI platform in a hybrid private/public cloud configuration.

HCI software-only options won't likely give you the full performance and supportability of a dedicated HCI appliance -- but it may be cheaper at first. Only you can say whether the overall lifetime costs will be less than a dedicated HCI system.

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