Transforming digitally: when is HCI the right fit?

Johannesburg, 19 Jan 2021
Read time 6min 00sec
Chris Larkins, Business Unit Manager: Dell Enterprise, Tarsus.
Chris Larkins, Business Unit Manager: Dell Enterprise, Tarsus.

Regardless of which report you reference, the hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) market is very bullish. Even though HCI has been on the market for less than a decade, it dovetails nicely with digital modernisation, cloud adoption, IT estate consolidation and cost reduction. But HCI is not suited for every use case out there. This combination of its incredible usefulness yet specific scope tends to confuse the market a little.

However, HCI is the type of technology that you ought to motivate not to get. If HCI is suited for your environment, but you neglect to consider its potential, you might be adding more steps to your digital plans than necessary.

Company Zone chatted to Chris Larkins, Business Unit Manager for Dell Enterprise at Tarsus, to help demystify the concept. He opened the conversation by noting, yes, HCI isn't for everyone:

"There are many good reasons to get an HCI appliance, which we can talk about. But HCI is not a cure-all for digital transformation. For example, if you approach HCI from a pure cost view, it won't make sense. HCI will save money, especially if you are consolidating data centre equipment, but you shouldn't just drop it in there and hope for the best. HCI excels when you apply it to the best-suited use cases."

A quick HCI history

HCI emerged out of the murky server era of the early 2000s. Back then, companies kept building large and complex server arrangements in data centres, the complexity of which resulted in ballooning costs. Server estates can be classified into three components: network, storage and compute. These remained relatively discrete from each other until converged systems started entering the market.

Converged infrastructure (CI) are the predecessors of HCI. Though the three layers were still discrete, they brought those elements closer together through proximity and software. HCI took this a step further, converging storage, network and compute through virtualisation and extensive engineering – effectively creating a product class that is as close to 'plug-and-play' data centre infrastructure as one could expect.

But such a highly consolidated version of complicated technology tends to require well-considered value propositions. Hence why there is confusion around the best opportunities for HCI.

Understanding HCI's value

If a company wants to transform digitally, HCI can be invaluable. It's not necessarily suited for smaller companies such as SMEs – not unless they are incredibly reliant on running their own systems and don't opt for a pure-services model. Yet mid-tier companies and enterprises should be interested as HCI can support numerous modernisation requirements.

Larkins lays out several examples of HCI use-cases:

  • Enterprise virtualisation: This is currently the leading use case among South African organisations, referring to virtualising enterprise workloads and applications. Such projects tend to start with a specific application or workload in mind, then selecting an HCI configuration that suits it. Since modern HCI systems can work across several appliances and plug directly into cloud provider environments, enterprises see HCI as an excellent way to modernise and consolidate their data centre needs.
  • Branch office edge computing: Edge computing supports essential tasks on-site, removing pressure from central company systems and increasing response times. Branch offices can benefit significantly from edge systems – such as calculating daily sales and stocks in real-time before sending the info to head office. Putting in a standard server is costly and inefficient, whereas an HCI appliance removes most of the heavy lifting, configuration and security enablement.
  • Virtual desktops: Virtual desktops (VDI) are back in fashion thanks to the cloud, but they can be notoriously finicky to create, meet vendor requirements, and deliver a consistent user experience. We can often blame such problems on servers cobbled together for VDI, which limit efficiencies or raise costs dramatically. HCI is very well-suited for such tasks: it can be pre-configured for VDI environments, and the systems tend to have vendor and partner validation for greater compatibility.
  • High-performance databases: As with VDI, HCI's pre-configuration and certification make it very appealing for high-performance databases. As mentioned previously, the best HCI systems can plug into cloud environments, enabling databases and workloads to include cloud resources if needed and scale down when demand slows. Additionally, the pre-vetted state of HCI among vendors and partners makes it much less complicated to migrate databases onto more modern systems.
  • Containerisation: South African companies are still slow to adopt containerisation, but it is, without a doubt, a crucial part of emerging IT estate planning and management. Simply put, containers are effectively digital boxes that can house workloads and applications – you could call them Virtualisation 2.0. Containerisation means less worrying about underlying specifications – and HCI is well-positioned to meet such specifications with minimum fuss. Hence the two technologies are sometimes peas in a pod.
  • Beyond skunkworks: Many digital companies run internal development spaces such as DevOps, often to test new ideas or improve current features. Such labs generally operate on patchwork IT systems and ad hoc cloud instances that shift to accommodate different projects. HCI is likely not necessary in such 'informal' environments. But once those efforts become formal and go into production, HCI steps up to run the finalised systems reliably and consistently.
  • Server management consolidation: HCI provides one pane of glass across HCI systems in an estate and across other areas such as cloud providers. Instead of building systems, IT professionals can install and configure – and vendors can set configurations before delivery. In other words, if you want to consolidate a server estate and gain visibility, HCI makes a very strong case to consider it.

HCI packages the complexity of data centre systems into what is tempting to call a turnkey solution. It's not that simple, but hardly anything behind the digital scene is. This is why HCI is not a silver bullet, yet can be a game-changer if placed into a considered context, Larkins concludes: "You've got to pay attention to what you're doing, what your plans are, how you work. Are you an app-native business, and can you consume stuff that's coming straight out of the cloud? Are you more reliant on traditional type applications? A lot of those decisions will help you see whether or not you need to go to on-premises infrastructure modernisation. And if you do, then HCI is generally a good fit for that platform, to build for the future."

Watch this video to learn more about the business benefits of HCI.

See also