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Implementing a hyper-converged network is still a pipe dream

HCI vendors would like to integrate network features with storage, compute and virtualization. In this opinion piece, learn why a hyper-converged network has yet to materialize.

As a longtime professional observer of the IT industry, I've developed a pet peeve around my fellow writers viewing new technology through rose-colored glasses. I see this when they report that some new technology will solve all the world's problems.

The one that's gotten in my craw lately is journalists believing what they're hearing from vendors and some analysts that hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) brings compute, storage and networking into a single integrated system.

While that would be really nice, and several vendors are working on implementing that vision, today, there is no such thing as HCI networking. Hyper-converged systems don't yet provide -- or even manage -- network resources.

The thought of a hyper-converged network gives me flashbacks to the days when we used Novell NetWare and Banyan Virtual Integrated Network Service servers as routers, Systems Network Architecture gateways and other network devices. I'm pretty sure I don't want to be ordering Nutanix nodes or Dell EMC VxRail chassis with slots for Ethernet line cards. But I do want hyper-converged network integration at the management layer.

I want things integrated all the way up into the virtual machine (VM) creation process. When a business unit needs a new application to run on a private network, I want to assign the Ethernet card to the new virtual LAN (VLAN) for that application, and have VMware vCenter -- or another management server -- create the private network in all the places it should go.

How a hyper-converged network can happen

I'm not picky about how the magic behind the curtain happens. A management process could connect to the physical switches and create the appropriate VLANs and access control lists for my private network. The HCI vendor could integrate a software-defined networking controller the way Coho Data does for its storage system. The HCI vendor can also manage the network flow by flow, or the virtualization provider could virtualize the whole network via an overlay, like VMware's NSX. Some may even argue that VMware's NSX provides most of the network features I want. Maybe it does, but NSX isn't a feature of VxRail; it's a product that would add $4,000 to $12,000 per host to a typical HCI installation.

The thought of a hyper-converged network gives me flashbacks to the days when we used Novell NetWare and Banyan Virtual Integrated Network Service servers as routers, Systems Network Architecture gateways and other network devices.

The market seems to have decided that network integration is a feature that separates mere server virtualization from true cloud solutions. The integration is addressed in the orchestration layer with tools like Ansible and Chef.

I'm intrigued by OpenStack's Neutron network management project, which provides consistent APIs to network management consumers, regardless of the technology underneath. The HCI vendor that hooks into Neutron will, in one fell swoop, be able to manage a wide variety of networks.

A step toward hyper-converged networking

Nutanix is the first vendor to address a hyper-converged network. Nutanix started out providing an HCI storage layer, and added its own hypervisor in an attempt to include a full private cloud environment. The Nutanix Prism management console can now visualize the network from one VM's virtual NIC across the physical network to the virtual NIC on another VM, control switches from Arista and Brocade that access a Nutanix API, and insert routing and firewalls. But those features only work with Nutanix's homegrown Acropolis hypervisor, and most Nutanix customers still run VMware vSphere.

Converged system vendors are also talking about making their systems more than the sum of the parts they're built from to give customers a better experience. But while they can cover up the complexity of initial setup with high-touch services, after the system is in place, the customer needs to manage it via tech, not touch.

I hope VMware, Cisco, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the rest of the HCI vendors do integrate network management, but it annoys me when people report that they already have.

Next Steps

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