There’s been a lot of industry news lately regarding Software-Defined Storage, Software-Defined Data Centers and hyper-convergence . After numerous conversations with various colleagues and friends about these concepts, I wanted to post my own thoughts on them and how I believe they are related.
First off, hyper-convergence has usually been used to denote the “next stage” in modern converged infrastructure. With many of the popular reference architectures or pre-built systems representing some level of “convergence”, hyper-convergence has come to refer to those systems that combine multiple data center tiers into a single appliance. However, as a term, I’ve come to view “hyper-convergence” as a misnomer. When looking at the modern landscape of integrated infrastructure platforms, there is only “convergence” and “simulated convergence”. Examples of converged infrastructure include Nutanix, Simplivity, et al while simulated convergence examples can be found in vBlock, VSPEX and FlexPod. And while there is differentiation within the simulated convergence platforms (e.g. pre-built vBlock vs. reference architectures VSPEX/FlexPod), they are only “converged” insofar as their disparate components are cabled and racked together in a branded rack and sometimes managed with common software (e.g. Cloupia). With simulated convergence, each “tier” of the data center is still represented by separate hardware components and an attempt at unity is made through the use of “single-pane” management software. Convergence differs from this in that data center tiers are consolidated into common hardware components which naturally increase management software simplicity as well.
Another interesting difference is that while simulated convergence offers simplified management and automation, convergence gives you these same things plus performance, cost and reduced complexity benefits as well. Because convergence moves data center tiers into a common platform, this naturally puts the network/compute/storage into closer proximity to each other, enabling greater performance and reduced complexity. Cost savings are achieved not only through hardware consolidation but operational expenditures can be lessened in a converged model as well.
None of this is to say that simulated convergence is worthless. On the contrary, simulated convergence via management software and reference architecture/pre-built configurations can greatly increase the consume-ability and ease of management of these separate components. Simulated convergence gives you increased efficiency on legacy platforms that organizations already have in place and already have knowledge on how to manage. It’s an improvement over traditional processes but it is not actual convergence, which is the next logical progression.
Indeed, say what you will about specific converged offerings but it’s hard to see why convergence as a model wouldn’t be the clear path to simplified software-defined data centers. No matter how much management software and automation you put in front of it, simulated convergence will always require specialized knowledge of various levels of divergent hardware components in order to properly maintain and run that model. You would never deploy a vBlock and only train your support staff on just Cloupia or vCenter with VSI plugins. No, for advanced troubleshooting and configuration an in-depth knowledge of all the network, hypervisor, compute, storage network and array components is necessary as well. Management software can mask the complexity, but it’s still there. It doesn’t move the control plane, it just creates another one.
Converged infrastructure that relies on commodity hardware and is software/virtualization-based shifts the focus from tier-based component management and support to a more holistic data center view. Under the converged model , the deployment and ongoing maintenance of the underlying infrastructure is greatly simplified, allowing for faster application deployment , monitoring and troubleshooting. In short, you spend much less time on your physical infrastructure and more time focusing on the business. Of course, hardware is still necessary on such a system but that’s not where the intelligence lies and as we’ve seen, there’s much less of it!
Going forward, I’m convinced that the popularity of convergence will only increase. What will be interesting to see is how the major compute/storage vendors handle this shift. As convergence increases, will a storage and compute vendor team up to sell their own converged solution? Will one of the startup convergence companies be acquired? Whatever happens, this will be one of the more exciting areas of IT to be involved with for many years to come. I can’t wait!