HCI Solutions: Interest in All Forms Runs High

By Michael Vizard
hyperconvergence transformation

Hyperconverged solutions represent one of the hottest technology categories to come down the data center pike in recent memory. However, as is often the case when it comes to new territory being carved out, there's now something of a land-grab taking place.

Most vendors and partners in the channel alike are pursuing hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) opportunities whenever, and frequently with whomever, they can.

"When it comes to hyperconverged infrastructure in the channel, it's the Wild West out there," said Diane Krakora, president of PartnerPath, a channel consulting firm. "There's not a lot of loyalty."

The good news for the channel is that large swaths of the data center are undergoing a transformation. Initially, converged systems emerged that bundled compute, storage, networking and virtualization software into the same chassis. But then hardware vendors—such as Nutanix, Dell EMC, Cisco, Huawei, Scality, Pivot8 and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE)—developed HCI solutions that add a layer of software that tightly integrates the management of compute and storage under a common scale-out architecture.

HCI Solutions Cut Costs of Acquiring, Running New Platforms

From that point on, demand for HCI solutions skyrocketed because IT organizations could reduce both their cost of acquiring new platforms and the operational expenses associated with running them. At the same time, however, it also became apparent that some customers just want to be able to access HCI software.

That gave rise to HCI offerings from VMware, SimpliVity and others. Now, even Nutanix gives customers the option of just acquiring its software for use on-premise or in the cloud.

A new report from 451 Research finds that about 40 percent of IT organizations are already making use of HCI solutions. Nearly one-fourth of respondents to the 451 Research survey indicated that they have hyperconverged infrastructure either in a pilot phase or they have plans for future adoption of the technology. The survey indicates that 74 percent of organizations are currently using an HCI solution somewhere in the core of their data centers.

The popularity of HCI initially caught many incumbent providers of servers by surprise. Rather than compete head-on with category pioneers, Dell, for example, responded by partnering with Nutanix to resell its HCI system. Later, Dell acquired EMC, which included a VCE business unit that had its own HCI appliance.

Now the combined Dell EMC entity is positioning the HCI systems such as VxRail sold by the new rechristened Converged Systems Group business as being optimized for VMware environments, while continuing to resell the Nutanix platform in environments that have standardized on other hypervisors, including one developed by Nutanix as an alternative to VMware, which also happens to be a sister company of Dell EMC. In any of those scenarios, Dell EMC says there is a fundamental shift toward pre-integrated systems under way. 

"The primary benefit is that IT organizations can scale out in much smaller increments," says Gil Shneorson, vice president and general manager for VxRail at Dell EMC. "The entry-level price is now under $45,000."

Similarly, Lenovo is trying to capitalize on HCI by partnering with both Nutanix and several other providers of HCI software. While its primary focus is on Nutanix, it's clear that Lenovo views HCI as an opportunity to usurp both Dell EMC and HPE at a time when many IT organizations are rethinking their data center architectures. And just to make matters more interesting, Nutanix is making its software available on Cisco servers, regardless of whether Cisco likes it or not.

In general, the primary customer interest in HCI solutions comes from the ability to manage compute, storage and networking as a single turnkey system, said Ajay Gupta, global head of product marketing at Huawei.

"Most of the saving comes from the operational side of the budget," said Gupta. "The trend is clearly toward having less boxes to manage."

The Right HCI Solutions

Depending on their levels of expertise with a specific HCI platform and the type of workloads customers are running, solution providers say they often need to mix and match products and technologies to come up with the right HCI solution.

For example, Kentaro Kawamori, director of solutions at SoftwareOne, said the solution provider tends to favor software-only approaches to HCI, given its history of focusing on software solutions. Interest in HCI is running high, not only because it enables many IT organizations to consolidate storage and servers, but it's also viewed as a step toward building a private cloud.

The challenge is that private clouds built using HCI don't yet integrate neatly with public cloud services from Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure. Because of that issue, there's a lot interest in the work VMware and AWS are undertaking to integrate their respective platforms, Kawamori said.

"Most of the focus today is on developing a cloud strategy," Kawamori said. "There's a lot of interest in what VMware and AWS will come up with that works out of the box."

In contrast, Daniel Serpico, president and CEO of FusionStorm, says that while the HCI solution that the solution provider deploys almost always involves a new hardware system, it's not even uncommon for it to involve VMware software, such as VMware Virtual Storage Area Network (VSAN), being attached to a traditional rack system. The challenge now is getting all the interest in HCI turned into actual sales, Serpico said.

"There's still a lot more interest than actual revenue," Serpico said.

Many IT organizations are still trying to navigate what type of workload should be deployed on-premise, Cliff Grossner, research director for IHS Technology Group, said.

"If it's a stable workload, it tends to lend itself to being deployed on-premise," Grossner said. "Variable workloads tend to do better in the public cloud."

In fact, solution providers would be well-advised to be wary of HCI hype, said Dave Kresse, vice president of products and alliances for Nimble Storage. There's a role for HCI, but IT organizations more often need to be able to scale compute, storage and networking independently of one another, he said.

"There's clearly a desire to shift dollars from infrastructure to applications," said Kresse. "But you need to remember that a lot of workloads need to be able to scale independently.

Therefore, it's important for partners and customers alike to have access to a broad range of platforms from a single vendor that share a common management framework, said Todd Brannon, director of product marketing for the Unified Computing Systems portfolio at Cisco.

"Different systems are needed for different types of workloads," Brannon said. "But all those systems should be based on a common management plane."

Regardless of the approach pursued, HCI is here to stay. But just like all the other platforms in the data center, it is competing for the highest percentage of workloads in the data center alongside converged systems, blade servers, racks and even mainframes. The challenge facing solution providers now is lining up the right workload with the right platform in a way that the customer doesn't wind up regretting later.

Mike Vizard has covered IT for more than 25 years, and has edited or contributed to a number of tech publications, including InfoWorld, CRN and eWEEK. He currently blogs daily for IT Business Edge and contributes to CIOinsight, Channel Insider and Baseline.

This article was originally published on 2016-10-31