What Is Hyperconverged Infrastructure?

As enterprise technology has evolved in recent years, it has largely trended towards flexibility — a greater ability to meet an organization’s needs, when and where they need it, and to shift as those needs change.

Then came the pandemic and related office shutdowns and redefined the meaning of “need.”

And this is where hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) comes into play. The concept is not new, but it has been gaining ground in recent years, especially when it comes to the public sector, and especially since the pandemic began.


In a word, it’s because of the flexibility of HCI. But it’s not always the best fit, nor is it necessarily going to take over every IT organization.

WHAT IS HYPERCONVERGED INFRASTRUCTURE?

HCI is, to put it as simply as possible, an IT architecture consisting of software that orchestrates network, storage and computing resources. It’s a paradigm by which an IT department can manage those foundational resources in one place, and do so in such a way that it allocates resources more effectively. That’s the “converged” part; whereas traditionally organizations would run storage, network and compute separately, HCI works with all three simultaneously.

“Essentially we have taken the complexity of pulling compute resources, storage resources, network resources and the software-defined data plane resources out and done it for you,” Kapil Bakshi, a senior director and distinguished engineer at Cisco, told Government Technology: in an interview. “It’s all done for you and given to you, all you’ve got to do is start dropping in application services, directly addressing the opex part of the equation.”

Here’s another part of HCI’s flexibility. It doesn’t need to run, necessarily, in the cloud or on premises. It can be in multiple clouds, on premises, wherever. Vendors will describe HCI as a “cloud operating model” that can be run regardless of location and can be set up to meet specific needs.

“The customer now has a choice regarding which public cloud or public clouds,” said Mark Chuang, head of product marketing for cloud storage and data at VMware. “They can select multiple providers they want to use, so they avoid lock-in, but they get that consistent operating model because it’s the same stack.”

WHY USE HYPERCONVERGED INFRASTRUCTURE?

There are many reasons HCI has started to catch on. It allows for more efficient use of resources, which can improve application performance because it allows for better coordination between network, storage and computing. Lee Caswell, senior VP of product and solutions marketing for Nutanix, likened it to a video saved to a person’s cellphone as opposed to streamed off the Internet.

“It turns out that there are big differences in performance,” Caswell said. “So you know this yourself, right? If you want to access the videos on your phone versus accessing videos sitting in a: [server]or you want to send a video to a friend, it takes time.”

There’s also something to be said about the consistency of HCI. That is, because HCI is software-defined, it allows for consistent application of security principles as well as familiarity to IT staff. In other words, an IT employee can work with the infrastructure the same way from one application to the next, or from one agency to the next — even if applications are built in very different ways.

“Let’s say a government entity says, ‘Oh great, I got this new application and it’s using files.’ And then somebody else comes in — ‘Oh, by the way, we’re deploying this other application and it uses blocks,’ or ‘I want to go into … objects.’ The idea that you’ve got flexibility to go and deploy across any of those storage constructs is actually super helpful,” said Chuang. “It’s liberating for customers to say, ‘I didn’t have to plan for it, but now I can leverage all the training I did, all the investment that I have, and I can run those different kinds of storage mechanisms.'”

CONTINUITY OF OPERATIONS, RESILIENCE AND RECOVERY

Another major benefit of HCI is its contributions towards making an organization more resilient, enabling continuity of operations and recovery in the face of natural hazards or cyber attacks.

There are several reasons why. One is the flexibility to locate resources in different places. Traditional COO strategies have called for, say, storing backup data in a data center outside of an area prone to earthquakes or other natural disasters; HCI allows for that location to be done through software and for the location to be changed.

“You can have the geolocation that’s totally separate,” said Bakshi with Cisco. “It could be East Coast, West Coast, non-earthquake region, non-flood region or you could have it in two different power grids. And these are all architectural design considerations that you can provide so that the HCI clusters are geographically separated in different data centers connected via network.”

Hyperconvergence also naturally includes the ability to quickly restore data. An IT organization can set its fault tolerance at the appropriate level and automatically bring in virtualized data in the case of, say, a leak in the data center.

It can also introduce a new ability to plug in different solutions from different vendors, making it faster and easier to replace damaged technology because the organization has a greater selection available to them.

“You’ve effectively taken the power of virtualization, and now instead of only applying it to the CPU and the memory, compute resources, you now apply that to virtualizing the storage as well as the networking,” Chuang said. “So once you virtualize, you don’t have to worry about what the specific underlying hardware is — you can change out different vendors and different hardware.”

WHEN WAS HCI INTRODUCED?

That’s a difficult question, especially since not all people have always agreed on the definition of hyperconvergence including networking resources. But the three sources interviewed for this story agreed that it’s recent — generally speaking, the big vendors started offering products in this area in the range of the early to mid-2010s. Nutanix first jumped in in 2009, with others such as VMware and Cisco coming closer to the middle of the decade.

All agreed that HCI has become much more popular in recent years, especially with recent trends towards edge computing, faster network speeds and a push towards digitization.

“Once you realize something’s reliable, then you basically look and say, ‘Well, OK, cool, now how fast is it?’ And that’s what’s happening right now, based in part on these new flash components that are available,” said Caswell with Nutanix.

WHAT IS HCI NOT GOOD FOR?

As gung ho as many vendors are on hyperconvergence, it doesn’t look likely to take over everything. There are limits to its usefulness.

It has to do with the way HCI is designed. It’s meant to help IT organizations coordinate networking, storage and computing resources at a high level, so it naturally benefits use cases involving all three. But if an organization were to just need extra computing resources, for example, HCI might not make the most sense.

“If you’re looking for very large industrial IT applications … that have very large databases which require dedicated compute or dedicated large storage, then [HCI] wouldn’t serve that purpose very well in that case, because they scale vertically. Essentially any application that would scale vertically would be a fit for a different construct than HCI,” Bakshi said. “Applications that tend to be virtualized or containerized and tend to scale horizontally will be a very good fit for HCI.”