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Data Center - Companies finally warm to hyperconverged infrastructure

Enterprises see the merits of hyperconverged infrastructure to modernize, automate and centralize IT resource management. But adoption hinges on closing the IT skills gap.

Just a few years ago, hyperconverged systems often seemed too costly to merit a switch from traditional IT architecture. But today, the technology is gathering steam as it becomes a central tool in data center modernization. Successful implementation, however, will hinge on closing the IT skills gap.

Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) combines servers, storage and networking in a single box and manages resources through software-defined data center principles and automated processes. HCI enables companies to achieve agility to innovate, to reduce IT's footprint and to manage resources more effectively. With its cost benefits, resource efficiency and centralized management, HCI clears the way for data center modernization and cloudlike setups. According to 451 Research’s “Voice of Enterprise Buyers” survey, about 40% of enterprises use HCI, with that percentage expected to grow over the next two years. And it’s not just for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), but for a variety of data center modernization needs.

Getting to the next level with hyperconverged infrastructure

As Baystate Health, a nonprofit healthcare system in based in Springfield, Mass., began to explore new disaster recovery (DR) technologies for its three data centers, it wanted more than just a failover strategy. It wanted to create better uptime and application performance with high availability technologies, said Raj Subramanian, director of infrastructure and technology at Baystate.

“We had to go to the next level. DR is . . . a consumption of time and effort. We wanted to take that extra step to get to high availability,” Subramanian said.

Because some of Baystate Health's departments are subject to regulatory requirements, the organization must isolate its networks to safeguard data. The move to hyperconverged infrastructure enabled it to create an Amazon Web Services–like public cloud environment within a private cloud environment—without the price tag of an Amazon-type dedicated server setup. The company opted for Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) hyperconverged technology and was ultimately able to reduce the time needed to provision IT resources from five weeks to three hours. It can now set up a system at a third of the cost of traditional servers.

“Hyperconverged infrastructure [is] more cost-effective, and we’re not there yet where an Amazon or Microsoft could compete [with a private cloud],” Subramanian said.

While Subramanian said that another benefit of hyperconverged architecture—network automation–is on the horizon, hyperconverged infrastructure helps Baystate get its IT processes in order and better positioned for automation and network programmability down the road.

“Are we 100% automated? No,” Subramanian said. “But we have matured as a strong ITIL [IT Infrastructure Library] shop,” he said. “We follow change and incident management, and we have a good working, mature CMDB [configuration management database]. They help us maintain our environment more rigidly.”

Hyperconverged brings agility, IT control

This is the kind of agility, combined with control of IT, that has made hyperconverged infrastructure compelling. HCI can enable a broad set of data center modernization objectives today. It helps companies that want to maintain control of IT resources in their data centers.

“The cloud and hyperconverged infrastructure,” Arthur Cole wrote in IT Business Edge, “can help realize the dream of an abstract data environment that can scale on demand and dynamically adjust itself to provide a continuously low-resource profile without sacrificing performance levels or centralized control.”

That’s not to say that everything went as planned at Baystate. When the healthcare organization experienced system response-time issues, it called in Cisco and VMware to help troubleshoot. The two companies “treated us as partners,” Subramanian said. “Sometimes it’s about turning the Titanic. We had to crash into some stuff first,” he said.

Bridging the IT skills gap

To create a dynamic environment in which new IT resources can be spun up rapidly, an organization often needs to make cultural shifts. New technologies like hyperconverged infrastructure bring formerly siloed IT teams together, requiring new ways of working.

In the case of Baystate Health, the server, storage and networking teams are collaborating more closely and working on assets that are far more dynamic and interdependent.

“It’s a shift in thinking and a completely different paradigm—especially for networking folks,” Subramanian said. “We’re moving from a rigid, static concept to a dynamic concept. We formed a new team that was a complete change in approach.”

But these shifts also required training to bridge the IT skills gap.

Accordingly, Baystate invested in programs for employees to learn about VMware VSAN and NSX (storage and networking technologies) as well as the Cisco UCS platform as a whole to ensure that the team could work with its new dynamic resources.

“Training needs to come first because we don’t want to get caught on a wire,” Subramanian said. “We’ve been keeping our staff well-trained; that’s something where we don’t want to be penny-wise.”

Companies that don’t address the IT skills gap may indeed find themselves left out in the cold. In a recent Computing survey, more than 70% of IT decision-makers reported a shortfall in technical cloud skills. According to another survey, nearly 50% of enterprises said that an IT skills shortage has slowed cloud usage. And data from 451 Research indicates that 41% of the largest enterprise respondents plan to change their IT team layouts.

As a result of bridging the skills gap and building a collaborative IT team to support hyperconverged infrastructure, Baystate Health has built a more forward-looking IT department, ready to tackle new projects.

One project is to centralize data management and security with VDI .This zero-client architecture, Subramanian said, will reduce the risk from lost or stolen laptops and tablets because, with VDI, all data resides in the data center. Remote workers could use personal laptops and still connect to company resources from home. “That’s a big thing from a security perspective,” he said.

“With current evolution in HCI, a team of four trained members can build this hyperconverged infrastructure within $ 1 million for a small organization—that’s huge,” Subramanian said.

“That’s possible only if we have the right mindset, the right people, the right thought process, the right leadership. My most favorite four-letter word this year is g-r-i-t—and that’s what it took.”

For more on this topic, check out our hybrid cloud strategy guide.

Raj Subramanian, director of infrastructure and technology at Baystate Health

Eight benefits of hyperconverged infrastructure

Many companies have enlisted hyperconverged infrastructure for virtual desktop infrastructure, which allows the device's operating system to run in a data center instead of locally on a device, such as a laptop or tablet. This can improve data security and disaster recovery for endpoints such as laptops and tablets.

But today, this computing model, which combines servers, storage and networking into one system, offers other more generic data center benefits, including better resource efficiency, a smaller data center footprint, centralized management and more modern, agile IT. Here are some of the key benefits:

1. Software-defined storage. Software-defined storage aggregates all hard drives within a cluster and represents them as a single, highly available, highly redundant storage capacity pool. If a disk or node goes down, data remains available for the rest of the cluster. This allows workloads to run on top of remaining nodes without disruption.

2. Centralized management. In hyperconverged systems, all components — compute, storage, networking — are combined in a single, shared resource pool and coordinated through hypervisor technology. This centralized architecture enables IT to manage aggregated resources as a single system and through a single interface.

3. Business agility. As the business pivots on a dime, IT must be ready. Traditional brittle hardware-driven systems can’t achieve these quick turns, but hyperconverged architecture enables agility and flexibility through its software-driven model.

4. Scalability. Unlike traditional systems, which can require major upgrades and investments to get to the next level of capability, hyperconverged infrastructure is designed to be constructed in a building-block approach.

5. Costs. Over time, hyperconverged systems can afford companies lower costs in terms of infrastructure investment. Many companies have dispensed with a storage area network (SAN) and network-attached storage (NAS) models in favor of a more streamlined and less expensive approach.

6.  Automation. With software-defined systems, infrastructure administrators and managers can execute automation much more easily because infrastructure is programmable through code.

7.  Shared resources. Because resources are drawn from a centralized pool, hyperconverged systems can take resources as needed, enabling more efficient use of resources and improved capacity.

8.  Data protection. Legacy systems can make data backup onerous, and you may need to buy a patchwork of products. In a hyperconverged environment, however, backup, recovery, and disaster recovery are built in. They’re part of the infrastructure, not third-party afterthoughts to be integrated.

Lauren Horwitz

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”