Hyper-converged software benefits include cost, flexibility

Software-only hyper-converged architectures are popular for organizations looking to save money, but an adequate IT staff is necessary for installation and troubleshooting.

When selecting a hyper-converged architecture, one of the first decisions that IT needs to make is whether that architecture should be software-only or a turnkey product that includes hardware and software. For most IT planners the decision will come down to choosing between time to value and eliminating maximum costs.

A hyper-converged architecture that is software-only is one where the vendor supplies no hardware. In most cases, these vendors allow you to run their hyper-converged software on any hardware in the environment. In some cases the vendors have a tightly controlled reference architecture that supports their software on a select few hardware platforms.

A turnkey hyper-converged architecture provides the hardware with the software preloaded. The reality is that all hyper-converged options on the market are software-defined; although purists will argue that "true" software-defined anything should not require the purchase of hardware. These turnkey vendors are responding to a legitimate customer demand for a complete solution.

Comparing turnkey options to hyper-converged software

In a hyper-converged software architecture, IT must play a bigger role in troubleshooting problems when they arise.

When comparing the two approaches to hyper-converged architecture, the assumption is that the software-only model is far less expensive than the turnkey approach. That assumption is right, especially if part of the implementation plan includes leveraging existing architecture. The problem is that most hyper-converged projects, even those that are software-only, tend to include purchasing brand new server hardware. When a company buys software only, they tend to buy name brand, not white-box server hardware. The net impact is that while software-only hyper-converged platforms do tend to be less expensive, the hard cost savings are not as dramatic you might think.

While hyper-converged software options have a hard cost advantage, their challenges are the soft costs of implementation. IT becomes the qualifier of the hardware. IT needs to decide which server, flash drive and hard disk drive technology to use. They also need to decide on the networking and its configuration. The network design becomes increasingly critical as the hyper-converged architecture scales in terms of number of nodes. Finally, in a hyper-converged software architecture, IT must play a bigger role in troubleshooting problems when they arise.

By comparison, a turnkey platform that has software preintegrated with server and networking hardware tends to be easier to implement. It should also be easier on IT from a support perspective. Since the hyper-converged vendor is the sole provider of the entire solution there should be less finger pointing. However, less support responsibility does not necessarily mean a better quality of support from the vendor. IT must be careful to select a vendor that can back up the "single throat to choke" mantra. 

If IT can work its way through the hardware selection process and manage support issues, a software-only hyper-converged architecture brings two distinct advantages:

  • It is less expensive than a turnkey approach.
  • Hyper-converged software is more flexible as the environment scales. With a turnkey product, the organization is locked into that vendor’s hardware for the life of the system. A software-only solution can integrate different types of hardware.

Making the final decision

A software-only hyper-converged architecture requires an IT staff that has the time and skill set to work through the initial implementation issues, as well as the skill to help the software vendor troubleshoot any issues that arise. Companies that have this kind of IT staffing are typically IT providers, so not only do they have the staffing to dedicate to a project like this, they also have more motivation to lower IT costs.

For organizations whose IT staff is already too thin, a turnkey hyper-converged approach is more appropriate. IT staffs in this situation simply don't have the time to go through a complex implementation phase because time to value is more critical. The faster the staff can implement the platform and have it ready to start hosting virtual machines, the better. For these IT professionals, the extra cost of a turnkey solution is easily justified but they may find the lack of flexibility frustrating in the future.

Next Steps

Differentiating hyper-converged and converged architecture

Benefits and drawbacks of hyper-converged approaches

Considerations for using a hyper-converged reference architecture approach

Dig Deeper on Converged Infrastructure Management