How to approach hyper-converged architecture vendors and lock-in

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This article is part of our Essential Guide: Data center convergence and the role of storage

Improve your vendor independence in hyper-converged and CI systems

Your best bet at avoiding vendor lock-in with hyper-converged and converged infrastructure systems may be a DIY approach. Explore offerings from several top vendors.

Organizations often cite vendor lock-in as one of their top concerns when considering a converged infrastructure and, in many cases, their concern is justified. Once sucked into a CI silo, pulling out can be a costly and time-consuming prospect.

Yet no system is free from vendor dependencies. Even systems based on open source technologies have a tough time achieving pure vendor independence. The key with CI is to minimize the risk, which can depend to a great degree on the platform you choose to implement.

The CI platform

The CI approach to data center management aims to consolidate resources and reduce administrative overhead, while minimizing compatibility issues among compute, storage and networking resources. Hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), an offshoot of CI, is similar in this regard, although it incorporates virtualization software to abstract compute and storage resources.

A number of vendors offer appliances that package CI or HCI capabilities. Although there are important differences between the two, at a high level, you can think of either type of appliance as a single modular unit that tightly integrates compute, storage and (sometimes) networking resources. An HCI appliance adds to this by incorporating virtualization software.

Vendors selling appliances build them with their own components and those of their partners. The appliances come pretested, preconfigured and optimized for defined workloads running against those specific components.

Many vendors also offer reference architectures (RAs) for building CI or HCI platforms. An RA serves as a blueprint, or template, that provides specifics about the components needed to build the platform, and how to put them together. Vendors offer RAs to get organizations to use their products, and promise optimized performance and maximum efficiency as long as they stick to the plan.

The all-in-one appliance

It's easy for an organization to get locked into a vendor when purchasing an appliance. The vendor solidifies the platform around specific components to pretest and preconfigure them.

The more variables introduced -- that is, the more vendor options -- the more difficult it is to standardize the technology and subsequently guarantee that all the pieces will work together as promised. The fewer the variables, the more stable the platform, and the less likely customers will run into surprises. Or run to other vendors.

Organizations looking at CI or HCI appliances risk losing vendor independence at both the hardware and software level because of the nature of the products themselves. An IT team that deviates from the original package will face daunting odds when trying to replace or augment components with ones that have not been sanctioned by the original vendor. This forces administrators to contend with interoperability issues that can translate to costly hits to both time and IT resources.

Organizations looking at CI or HCI appliances risk losing vendor independence at both the hardware and software level because of the nature of the products themselves.

Consider the Dell XC appliance, a CI system built on the Dell PowerEdge server platform and integrated with Nutanix software, a system for managing direct-attached storage. To scale the system beyond the originally acquired nodes, the only viable option is to purchase additional XC appliances. This forces an organization to stick with the Dell/Nutanix package throughout the lifespan of the project. The only bright spot in all this is that the individual nodes can be used for other purposes if they are no longer needed for the CI platform.

You're not so lucky with HCI systems. Take, for example, Dell EMC's VxRail appliance, which uses VMware software to abstract the compute and storage resources. Similar to a CI appliance, compatible nodes are added to the base unit to scale out, once again locking an organization into the vendor's approved products. However, unlike CI appliances, the HCI nodes can't be used for other purposes because the components are so tightly integrated. What you gain in compatibility, you lose in flexibility.

Doing it yourself

Most flexibility with appliances comes when you order the product. For example, the Dell XC appliance has various processing, memory and storage options to choose from, although there's not much you can change beyond that.

There are companies that offer far more vendor independence. For instance, when you order an HCI appliance from Maxta, you can choose the server platform from vendors such as Cisco, Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), Lenovo, Quanta or Supermicro, and also select the amount of compute, memory and storage resources you need. The main thing you're locked into is the storage management software: Maxta Storage Platform (MxSP).

But even with the Maxta appliance, once it has been purchased, you've locked yourself into a specific server platform, as well as the MxSP software itself, for at least the duration of the product's use.

However, Maxta sells its MxSP separately from its appliances, allowing organizations to set up and control their HCI platforms based on their own requirements. This way, companies can choose the hardware and software they want to use in conjunction with MxSP. Companies such as Springpath and VMware also offer their HCI software as separate products.

To make it easier to set up an HCI system using their software, vendors offer RAs. For example, Maxta provides the "MaxDeploy Hyper-Converged Reference Architecture Solution Brief" for implementing MxSP on x86 industry-standard server platforms. This allows users to choose a server platform and a hypervisor, such as VMware vSphere or the open source kernel-based virtual machine hypervisor.

But not all RAs offer as much vendor independence. For instance, HPE and VMware provide customers with the "HP Verified Reference Architecture for VMware Horizon 6.1 on HPE ConvergedSystem 700 2.x." As the name suggests, the RA is specific to CI platforms built on HPE servers and VMware software. Other products don't come into the picture.

The same goes for many of the RAs specific to HCI platforms. For example, Dell offers the RA "EMC VSPEX Private Cloud: VMware vSphere for up to 700 Virtual Machines," which is concerned primarily with Dell EMC hardware and VMware software. Having this type of RA can be invaluable for building your own system, as long as you're willing to lock yourself into the approved products.

Making a decision

More than likely, your best bet for controlling your infrastructure and optimizing vendor independence would be to purchase the HCI software and do it yourself. You could even take it a step further and do everything from scratch, perhaps using an open source product such as OpenStack. That said, the amount of time and resources it would take to build and maintain such a system could easily offset the benefits. Even if you purchase software such as MxSP, you'll still have your work cut out for you.

At the same time, you should be cautious not to go overboard with your fear of vendor lock-in. Most Apple customers are quite happy with the level of lock-in they get with their Apple products. Besides, no system is without at least some level of lock-in. Even if you purchase only the HCI software, you've committed to that software and your selected server platform.

Be careful not to dismiss an appliance or product-specific RA just because of vendor lock-in. Although lock-in should be a consideration, it should not be your only one. For some organizations, an appliance might be the ideal product for their particular circumstances, such as supporting a satellite office. If preventing vendor lock-in is a top priority, be sure to vet your alternatives carefully to minimize that risk.

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