HCI is one of the most hyped ideas in the IT industry today, and the hyper-converged infrastructure market is driving the evolution of storage and data center management.
Hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) is gaining traction because it is easy to buy, install and manage. The value proposition of hyper-convergence is that most IT shops lack the experience and desire to integrate complex systems together.
Instead of having to buy servers, storage and networks from separate vendors, HCI offers a single appliance that does it all, and it's held together by a software package that provides a virtual SAN to connect all of the storage in a single pool.
But HCI appliances are commercial or commodity off-the-shelf (COTS) servers under the hood. They probably have proprietary hooks in the form of drive signatures and special management interfaces, but they are the same Intel reference designs that everyone uses. In fact, most look like standard 2U servers with 12 or 24 drive bays, which is what they are, from a hardware perspective. The value-add is the virtual SAN software. Without it, HCI is a plain old server box. The software makes all those direct-attached drives shareable in a storage pool and the entire infrastructure disappears below the hypervisor. Managing infrastructure is essentially automated.
HCI market vendors
There are quite a few software vendors in the hyper-converged infrastructure market already, including startups and large established vendors. The first two prominent early HCI vendors were Nutanix and SimpliVity; they have relationships with Dell EMC, Lenovo and Cisco. Dell EMC, VMware, Nimboxx, Pivot3, DataCore, Scale Computing, Gridstore and others also have software offerings for HCI, although some of them only sell software bundled on appliances.
Initial products in the hyper-converged infrastructure market were very tightly controlled and, typically, were limited to a single configuration for each vendor. This simplified the marketing story and created the aura of a product that could resolve immensely complex issues through preintegration. The reality is that COTS servers have already done this with almost any hardware.
But HCI can be built onto any COTS server. Any IT shop that bought software and installed it on its own servers is not counted in HCI market analysis, nor is hardware such as Coho Data's switch/storage combination. Shops that run these configurations probably don't make a big dent in the hyper-converged infrastructure market today, but they are crucial to the direction of the HCI segment over the next few years.
The bigger issue is that the lid of Pandora's box is wide open. There are too many software vendors that can offer hyper-convergence for the big 3 to continue to lock down the market. Nutanix and SimpliVity are bound to spread their vendor base and open up distributor sales; other software vendors will take aim at the hardware vendors Nutanix and SimpliVity don't service, including white box products.
Moreover, the realization that specially selected and higher priced hardware is unnecessary for an HCI cluster will move the industry toward inexpensive platforms, probably from the OEMs that offer many servers to the major cloud providers.
At some point, an open source virtual SAN will enter the equation, and the industry will then follow a path similar to Linux systems and commodity object stores.
Technology will play a part in all of this. Servers are evolving toward a compact model with persistent memory on the dynamic RAM bus as the primary storage tier. This implies drives will be outside of the server farm in boxes specifically designed for bulk, archival storage, likely with low-power 100+ TB SSDs packed tightly together.
HCI is a transition on the way to a new generation of IT. Several years from now, IT shops will be based on software-defined infrastructure with industry API standards for interlinking data microservices running in containers. All of the current HCI code will have to evolve to a standards-driven world, and a tight integration of networking, compute and storage will be a standard part of numerous orchestration tools.
Charting the HCI appliance market
Comparing converged and hyper-converged infrastructure