Bye-bye, Big Box: Hyper-converged Infrastructure Waking Up Storage Market
Enterprise storage has been the sleepy part of IT. While servers and networks have been completely reimagined over the past ten years, big-box storage has changed relatively little and is more often viewed as a necessary evil than a business driver. But there is reason to be excited about storage today as Moore’s Law rouses storage in the same way that it revolutionized servers a decade ago.
What’s driving the storage revolution is the advent of hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), a new approach to data center IT that consolidates software-defined storage services with virtual servers. The HCI approach is being championed by VMware and a growing set of startups now that fast flash drives and cheap servers provide a powerful, converged hardware base that can be “software-defined.” We’re still in the early phases of HCI adoption, but we can expect the compelling management and TCO benefits to push HCI into mainstream market adoption.
The disaggregation of custom storage systems will look familiar to industry veterans who tracked UNIX server market fortunes following the advent of x86 servers. In many ways, HCI market adoption is an exact parallel where expensive, complex RISC architectures and custom local area networks were abandoned for cost-effective, industry-standard servers. In fact, if you examine the market trends that shook up the server market back then, what is beginning to happen now in the storage market seems almost inevitable.
Big Servers, Big Price Tags
Back in the UNIX server days, when you needed to expand compute capacity, “scale up” was the norm. When your workloads began to outpace the performance of your hardware, you bought bigger boxes – typically big, proprietary RISC-based servers from the likes of DEC, HP, IBM or Sun Microsystems.
Over time, however, the economics of this model began to break down as industry-standard x86 hardware designed for high-volume desktops became redeployed as server engines for the data center. The rapid increase in performance of x86 processors from Intel and AMD was an important driver. But equally important was the availability of enterprise-ready operating systems for the x86 architecture including Microsoft Windows NT and Linux.
What really put the nail in the coffin of the custom, proprietary model of server infrastructure, however, was the rise of virtualization. Once high-quality hypervisors became available on industry-standard server platforms, creating unprecedented efficiencies in resource utilization, it was increasingly difficult to justify huge capital expenditures on proprietary servers that locked in customers to a single vendor’s platform.
HCI similarly repurposes high-volume hardware, in this case industry-standard x86 platforms with local storage, from the server market to the storage market using a natural extension of virtualization software. By aggregating, protecting and accelerating the storage across server nodes, new HCI software converges compute and scale-out shared storage in a single platform. “Scale out,” rather than “scale up,” becomes the new normal – a lesson learned from hyperscale public cloud providers like AWS, Azure and Google, who all deploy x86 servers in their approach to public cloud storage.
Why the Storage Market Needs HCI
The storage component of the infrastructure is ready for a wake-up call. Adding storage capacity often means investing in expensive, proprietary SAN appliances, with proprietary Fibre Channel interconnects. Procurement is a lengthy and risky process because of the massive up-front costs and complexity in configuration. The big-box approach requires the expertise of dedicated storage professionals.
HCI blows that model wide open. Hyper-converged storage, such as VMware vSAN, replaces those costly, siloed storage boxes with flexible, scale-out storage appliances based on industry standard x86 servers. Customers are free to start small and purchase new storage incrementally as performance or capacity needs grows. Capital expenditures are kept to a minimum and guesswork is all but eliminated from storage capacity planning.
Equally important, HCI allows the entire IT organization to be more agile and responsive to shifting business objectives. With storage hosted on the same servers as power compute and networking, resource planning is no longer constrained by the availability of storage specialists. For the first time, IT generalists are able to manage the entire data center and can manage storage using a software-defined approach where changes are accomplished through the user interface rather than with hardware changes.
Will traditional enterprise storage disappear altogether? The UNIX experience would indicate that big-box storage will not disappear but that these expensive, proprietary systems will occupy a very small market niche in terms of unit volume. Proprietary enterprise storage will become increasingly difficult to justify, particularly as more organizations embrace modern development practices such as continuous delivery, continuous integration and DevOps. HCI is the perfect implementation for these new ideas and practices.
Storage customers looking at HCI solutions have a lot to smile about these days. We’re on the verge of a genuine watershed moment in the storage market, and it will be exciting to see what the next 12 months will bring.