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Hyperconvergence architecture: CIOs mull hardware savings

Hyperconverged architecture may or may not cut hardware costs, but some CIOs and other industry executives suggest an emphasis on sticker price misses the point.

Editor's Note: This is part two of two articles examining the emergence of hyperconvergence architecture in the enterprise. Part 1 covers the technology's benefits, while Part 2 examines the question of cost savings. 

Comparing one technology architecture to another from a financial perspective has always been a sticky proposition. In evaluating hyperconvergence architecture -- the latest take on integrated IT systems -- CIOs might feel they've wandered into a quagmire.

While hyperconvergence would seem to be a money saver, the technology's actual cost-cutting potential may prove elusive. That's particularly the case when evaluating the initial cost of hyperconverged platforms against other data center options. But interviews with CIOs and other industry executives suggest that the primary benefits of hyperconverged architecture may be found in administrative cost reduction and in the technology's smaller data center footprint.

The nuanced discussion around hyperconvergence points to perhaps one definitive conclusion: It depends. The technology's suitability varies from case to case.  

Phil Bertolini, CIO and deputy county executive, Oakland County, Mich.Phil Bertolini

The IT department in Oakland County, Mich., provides an example. The local government considered the all-in-one approach a couple of years ago when it was looking at a data center technology update, noted Phil Bertolini the county's CIO and deputy county executive. Oakland County weighed that option versus a reference architecture, a set of server, storage and networking components from different vendors that have been tested to work together. A reference architecture is similar to converged infrastructure (see part 1), but lacks the prepackaging of vendor products and offers greater flexibility to mix and match hardware.

"Based on our evaluation, we saw it was going to cost more," Bertolini said of the everything-in-a-box approach.

Keith Townsend, IT infrastructure consultantKeith Townsend

Bertolini said the price per box was $2 million, noting that the county would have needed to purchase two appliances. And, on top of the $4 million hardware price tag, the county would also incur labor costs associated with migrating to a new environment. The reference architecture, meanwhile, was priced at $3.5 million including labor, Bertolini said.

In addition, Bertolini said the reference architecture enabled the county to reuse some existing servers, a move that would not have worked with a tightly coupled appliance. He noted the county had just purchased new servers a year or two before its data center technology evaluation and wasn't eager to throw them out.

Keith Townsend, an IT infrastructure consultant, has also examined the hardware costs of hyperconverged technology, surveying valued-added resellers and end customers. He determined that hyperconverged hardware is essentially cost neutral with respect to traditional or converged infrastructure approaches.

Townsend said the potential for cost savings tends to evaporate, as costs move from one IT area to another. For example, the incorporation of storage in a hyperconverged appliance may cut spending on storage administration. But the organization may end up spending money on creating scripts that automate tasks within an HCI environment.

"It is usually a cost shift," Townsend said of hyperconvergence.

Another consideration: The effect of hyperconvergence architecture on labor costs will be moderated in data centers that continue to run traditional storage alongside hyperconverged boxes. Those organizations will still need storage administrators, unless they replace all of their traditional storage arrays with hyperconverged technology, Townsend said.

Hyperconverged technology: Beyond hardware

At the National Blood Authority, Peter O'Halloran, the agency's CIO, observed that the initial purchase price of its hyperconverged gear was similar to the price of traditional equipment. He said the key advantages HCI delivered are linked to the reduced physical size of the hardware. That smaller size translated into money saved.

Peter O'Halloran, CIO, National Blood AuthorityPeter O'Halloran

Because hyperconverged appliances take up less space than traditional data center equipment, the authority was able to place its new hardware in existing rack space. This reuse of resources "meant that we didn't have to relocate to new pods in our data center and thus avoided the significant costs" involved in re-routing fiber cables and de-racking, moving and re-racking equipment, O'Halloran explained.

O'Halloran also focused on time and maintenance savings as top benefits of HCI. He said two IT staff members handled the Nutanix HCI rollout in addition to their day-to-day duties. As for upkeep, the maintenance overhead on HCI is less than 20% of the equivalent work for traditional infrastructure, he added.

Jeff Kato, senior storage analyst at the Taneja Group Inc. in Hopkinton, Mass., said the market research firm's discussions with HCI customers have shown a similar pattern: An emphasis on ease of maintenance as opposed to head-to-head hardware savings over other architectures.

Technology will always get cheaper. But the people and process are difficult to change.
Ben Woostorage and big data analyst, Neuralytix

"They [customers] are not coming up with ... a 2x or 4x price improvement," Kato said. "Some see a reduction in Capex costs versus traditional. Others say it is a wash. It's really on a deal-by-deal basis."

Instead of Capex, customers tend to talk up the ability to run hyperconverged infrastructure with IT generalists instead of highly specialized personnel.

"They can't afford to hire these specialists," Kato said.

Hyperconvergence architecture customers often cite a 5x reduction in the labor required to manage hyperconverged technology versus a three-tiered data center architecture, he added.

Better use of data center real estate is another argument for HCI.

Craig McKesson, executive vice president of enterprise services, T5 Data CentersCraig McKesson

Craig McKesson, executive vice president of enterprise services at T5 Data Centers, said HCI provides an efficiency edge. T5, a data center services provider, in March entered a partnership with hyper-converged vendor Pivot3, opening a Pivot3 Center of Excellence in its 100,500 square foot Atlanta data center. The arrangement makes HCI an option for T5's customers, which include healthcare, government, gaming, transportation and retail organizations.

In conjunction with the HCI center, T5 has rolled out Schneider Electric's StruxureWare data center infrastructure management tool, which McKesson said provides insight into data center efficiency.

"As our customers move more toward technologies like HCI, it is going to allow us to become more efficient as it relates to the utilization of our space," McKesson said. "Instead of taking up 12 u [of rack space], we can do something in 2 u. It allows us to better plan and run our data centers."

Small steps toward a broader vision

Meanwhile, Ben Woo, storage and big data analyst at Neuralytix, an IT analyst firm in San Francisco, emphasized that HCI and other IT approaches are not about dollars and cents, but rather people and process.

"Technology will always get cheaper," he said. "But the people and process are difficult to change."

The people and process, he noted, "have to move away from focusing on infrastructure" and move toward "being able to drive information, insights and innovation."

That's a sweeping vision. But O'Halloran suggested CIOs start their HCI efforts on a limited scale.

"I think the simple advice is to find a small pilot and try the technology and see if the benefits really do stack up."

Next Steps

Read a series of articles on hyper-converged storage.

Examine converged and hyper-converged technology alternatives.

Take a look at 10 reasons for pursuing a hyper-converged data center.

Dig Deeper on Enterprise systems management