Organizations have grown increasingly dependent on technology and traditional storage area network (SAN)-based infrastructure struggles to keep up with today’s IT needs. It is complex, cumbersome to manage and cannot scale as flexibly or efficiently to keep pace with the rapidly changing IT landscape. The result is IT teams spending too much time and money provisioning, managing and maintaining an infrastructure that doesn’t meet current or future needs.

Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) is one way you can combat modern data center complexity. In this blog, we dive into HCI to understand how it works, its advantages and how modern businesses like yours can benefit from an HCI solution.

What is a hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI)?

Hyperconvergence is an IT framework that combines computing, storage, networking and virtualization technology into a single system, often referred to as a “node.” A hyperconverged infrastructure is a software-defined system that unifies elements of a traditional data center: storage, computing, networking and management. Management of all resources can be federated (shared) across all instances of a hyperconverged infrastructure because the software-defined elements are implemented at or via the hypervisor.

What does hyperconverged infrastructure include?

As a software-defined platform, there are four main software components that make up an HCI platform:  

  • Storage virtualization: This is the process of abstracting physical storage from multiple storage devices in such a way that it appears to be a single storage device. 
  • Compute virtualization: This is the process of creating a virtual version of computer hardware platforms, operating systems, computer networks, storage devices, etc.
  • Networking virtualization: This refers to the pooling of physical network resources to make them work as either a single virtual network or multiple independent virtual networks to improve server performance.
  • Unified management: This allows storage, computing and networking resources, regardless of their physical location, to be located, grouped and supplied to workloads.   

Who invented hyperconverged infrastructure?

There is no definitive answer as to when or where the term “hyperconverged infrastructure” was coined or who came up with it. The concept of convergence originally emerged to address the challenges of the 3-2-1 architecture, which combined hardware components into clusters. Before hyperconverged infrastructure came into existence, IT vendors would pool disparate hardware and software and package them as a single set of tools, known as converged infrastructure (CI).

As dependence on technology grew, organizations needed efficiency, reliability and scalability to keep up with constantly changing business requirements, which traditional infrastructure could not provide. Hyperconverged infrastructure is an evolutionary step that addresses ever-growing data center complexity and storage challenges.

While the origin of the term “hyperconverged infrastructure” is unknown, it is believed that Nutanix was the first technology company to bring to market an HCI-specific product in 2011 called Complete Cluster.

What is the difference between converged and hyperconverged infrastructure?

The main difference between a converged infrastructure and a hyperconverged infrastructure is the approach. Converged infrastructure is a hardware-based approach to unify server, storage and networking components into one physical appliance whereas hyperconverged infrastructure is software-defined. As BMC explains, “with converged architecture, storage is attached directly to the physical server while the hyperconverged architecture has a storage controller function that runs as a service on every node in the cluster.” Hyperconverged infrastructure is more flexible, scalable and agile than converged infrastructure.

What is the main advantage of hyperconverged infrastructure?

The main advantage of hyperconverged infrastructure is it simplifies IT management while optimizing performance. HCI reduces the number of systems to be managed, the time spent on designing and building IT systems and deploying a large number of applications, while mitigating the complexity of integrating various disparate resources.

How does hyperconverged infrastructure work?

HCI combines commodity data center server hardware with locally attached storage (often flash) that is powered by a distributed software layer, which distributes all operating functions across a cluster (multiple nodes) for superior performance and resilience. With virtualization, these multiple infrastructure siloes are combined and managed as a single entity enabling a holistic, software-defined and integrated system.  

Virtualization software abstracts and pools the underlying resources of the node. To optimize performance, the software dynamically allocates resources to applications running within virtual machines (VMs) or containers. By utilizing a native hypervisor on the node or cluster, the underlying storage is architected and embedded directly within the hypervisor, eliminating the need for inefficient storage protocols, file systems and virtual storage appliances (VSAs). 

Hyperconverged infrastructure typically runs on an x86 server architecture, ideal for virtualization. The latest generations of x86 servers offer broad compatibility to support a wide range of software development needs while their reliability and scalability (in part due to high-performance network, computing and storage capabilities) make them ideal for application hosting.  

What is hyperconverged infrastructure used for?

HCI is designed to solve challenges brought about by a traditional 3-tiered architecture (3-tiered architecture is the use of independent servers, storage and networking components).

Traditional 3-tiered architecture is: 

  • Expensive to build  
  • Complex to operate  
  • Difficult to scale  
  • Not agile enough to meet today’s application demands  

HCI solves the pain of traditional infrastructure complexity, cost and risk by:  

  • Aligning policies to workloads, rather than siloed hardware constructs  
  • Leveraging automation for faster service delivery 
  • Reducing complexity by delivering the solution through a single interface to provide familiar, common and extensible management across the platform  

Why organizations need hyperconverged infrastructure?

Here are the top three reasons organizations consolidate to HCI: 

  1. Reduce complexity: Convergence of infrastructure components and unification under the software plane simplifies deployment and management while reducing time required to provision new systems and maintain existing ones. Traditional architecture layers require their own management systems, individual support services, trainings and certifications. Compatibility between vendors is a constant challenge. For instance, businesses must ensure that vendor X’s latest update is compatible with vendor Y’s and so on. 

HCI helps businesses to:

  • Easily manage heterogenous workloads on a single cluster.
  • Accelerate the provisioning of application resources.
  • Dynamically adjust to changing resource requirements.
  • Autonomously monitor quality of service, thereby speeding resolution of issues that may arise.
  • Quickly scale computing and storage by adding more nodes to existing clusters, without application or services downtime.
  • Establish policy-based management that enables admins to specify storage needs for a given workload. The software automatically implements, monitors and remediates against the policy as required.  
  1. Control costs: Dynamic resource allocation optimizes physical and professional resources to reduce costs while meeting growing organizational demand and the SLAs around IT services.

HCI helps control capital expenditures and recurring expenses. HCI uses industry-standard components (e.g., x86 servers, 10GB ethernet, etc.) rather than purpose-built storage arrays and fibre channel networking to drive cost efficiencies beginning at procurement. HCI scales incrementally; users buy what they need and scale granularly as data grows. 

Hyperconverged infrastructure leverages automation to deliver operational efficiencies. Software enables rapid deployment of cloud infrastructure, eliminates manual tasks like provisioning and managing storage and automates processes like patching, updating and upgrading infrastructure. Many HCI vendors offer perpetual licensing that carries through multiple infrastructure refreshes and keeps support at a fixed cost.  

  1. Preparing for hybrid cloud: HCI modernizes the data center to protect current investments while opening up opportunities to embrace edge and public cloud use cases.

Consistent infrastructure operations are integral to running and managing applications between environments. HCI delivers a singular model for infrastructure operations by delivering dynamic capacity, consolidating on-premises infrastructure and providing the ability to develop and test new applications. Taking a common approach breeds consistency and simplicity enabling rapid deployment of new VMs, containers and next-generation appliances. The alignment of computing, storage, networking and management makes facilitation between on-premises and cloud environments easier.   

What are the benefits of hyperconverged infrastructure?

Some of the benefits of HCI are:

  • Increased IT efficiency: Computing, storage and networking resources are hosted in a single place, which means less systems and vendors to manage. Automation in HCI eliminates manual processes, which increases efficiency and saves IT time.
  • Reduced storage and costs: HCI allows businesses to avoid large upfront costs by using industry-standard x86 servers and scaling the data center capacity as needed. HCI reduces infrastructure spending by enabling businesses to only pay for what they need.
  • Simplified deployment: HCI solutions are available in optimized, pre-defined packages, so businesses can simply purchase and run them. HCI allows centralized management of all virtual environments through a single interface, which simplifies system management.
  • Boosted performance: With HCI, organizations can deploy several applications and workloads without worrying about reduced performance. HCI systems utilize faster CPUs and SSD/NVMe storage devices that can handle even the most intensive workloads easily.
  • Improved flexibility and scalability: HCI utilizes a building-block approach that enables businesses to easily scale by simply adding units as per their business requirements.
  • Advanced security: Hyperconvergence software is built to anticipate and manage hardware failure to enhance data protection. Many HCI vendors utilize AES-256 software encryption, self-encrypting drives (SEDs) and built-in key management functions to eliminate the need for third-party software, agents or scripting.

Why backup is still a necessity with hyperconverged infrastructure

While HCI systems’ native hypervisors are capable of taking snapshots, snapshots by themselves are not backups. A snapshot saves point-in-time virtual copy of virtual machine (VM) data including the VM’s power state, disk, memory, virtual network interface cards (virtual NICs/vNICs) and files.

Snapshots are commonly used as a failsafe rollback point before performing system upgrades, changing installed software or installing/uninstalling other components. They are useful for development purposes, since they can be used repeatedly in a “rinse and repeat” style during development and software validation cycles.

Snapshots are not a reliable form of backup because they reside on the same array as production data and do not protect data from disk breakdowns, hardware failures or cyberattacks against the array.

Best practices from one of the largest hypervisor providers in the market, VMware, clearly explains the intent and purpose of snapshots — and they are not intended as backups. Some of the limitations include:

  • VMware advises not to exceed a maximum of 32 snapshots in a chain. For best performance, they recommend 2-3.
  • An individual snapshot is not intended to be used for more than 24-72 hours.
  • Snapshot files’ size increases the longer the snapshot is retained. This impacts system performance and may cause storage locations to run out of space more quickly.  

Conversely, backup files are created independently of the virtual machine. While most modern backup technologies leverage the VM snapshot to copy data, they do not rely on the snapshot remaining in place.

A backup creates a consistent copy of the VM for use in recovery. Backups are easily exported and stored on secondary media or replicated to a secondary target to be stored in a warm state, readily available for recovery.

Backups are an essential part of business continuity, enabling recovery time objectives (RTOs) and recovery point objectives (RPOs) to be met. Snapshots do not ensure either of those objectives.  

How Unitrends helps

Unitrends Unified BCDR platform supports more than 250 versions of applications, operating systems and hypervisors (for example, HCI vendor Nutanix’s native hypervisor Acropolis/AHV), enabling you to protect all computing resources, including HCI with a single, unified data protection solution. Unitrends delivers advanced recovery features that go far beyond the capabilities of snapshots, including granular item recovery, instant recovery for VMs and Windows servers, automated application-level recovery testing and more. Integrate with Unitrends Cloud for cost-effective long-term retention and Disaster Recovery-as-a-Service (DRaaS) to spin up key workloads in the event of a site-wide disaster. To learn more about how Unitrends can help you achieve robust BCDR to support all workloads, including your HCI deployment, download our checklist.

About Adam Marget

Adam is a Technical Specialist on the Unitrends marketing team supporting digital and in-market events. Over the last 4 years with Unitrends, he has been delighted at the opportunity to work with customers, prospects, and partners alike to help solve challenges around data protection and business continuity. Adam joined Unitrends in 2016, bringing with him experience working with variety of manufacturers’ technology from edge to core as a coworker from national IT solutions provider CDW.