HCI and Hybrid Cloud

Will HCI be part of the answer or part of the problem?

Anyone seeking more economical and flexible IT now has a range of options. For example, on top of virtualisation we can add various software-defined technologies, including hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) and ‘the cloud’ – especially the public/private combination known as hybrid cloud and the cross-platform combination called multi-cloud.

But do these options deliver what they promise? Perhaps more importantly, even if they do deliver, does it come at the expense of unwanted additional complexity? To get some answers to these questions, we dug into the results of a recent study by Freeform Dynamics which highlights many of the expectations and experiences that data centre managers and other IT professionals have with modern approaches to IT provision.

In particular, it asked respondents which of these technologies they used, which aspects were important, and of course what challenges and results they had found with them.

The push for flexibility

If you expect flexibility from your IT investments, you’re in good company – it is an expectation that comes up time and again when we talk to data centre professionals. And in an age when you also consistently report being asked to make existing resources stretch further and “to do more with less”, it’s not surprising. After all, the more flexible an investment is, the more use you potentially can get out of it.

Of course, a key reason why IT needs to become more flexible is that it is required to support more flexible business practices. Modern enterprises need to be adaptive, able to respond faster to changes in the trading environment, whether those changes are social, economic, technological, regulatory or some combination of all those. That in turn pushes IT not just to be more flexible but to flex faster as well.

The widespread adoption of virtualisation (Figure 1), via tools such as VMware, Microsoft Hyper-V, Citrix Xen, KVM and others, was initially driven more by the desire to optimise resource usage and cut costs. However, it soon became clear that it also considerably improved IT flexibility. By abstracting the software from the hardware, it allowed virtualised servers to be replicated, backed-up or moved to a new hardware host, and for a single physical server to host multiple virtual machines.

It appears though that for many organisations, while what we might call ‘traditional virtualisation’ is still broadly used, its role as the primary delivery platform is declining. Much of the new demand for flexible delivery is instead being picked up by more modern alternatives that use virtualisation just as an enabling technology. In particular that means public cloud infrastructure and platform-as-a-service options, and integrated multi-/hybrid cloud environments.

Hybrid hopes face costing challenges

Hybrid cloud combines traditional ideas of on-prem IT – which are familiar and comfortable to data centre professionals, auditors and regulators alike – with access to dynamic and elastic public resources. This may explain why hybrid cloud, for which HCI is often employed as the local/private element, shows more growth than local HCI on its own.

Confirming this point, more than two-thirds of the study’s respondents rated a range of modern approaches as important (Figure 2). Significantly, all these approaches can run locally in a private cloud, remotely, or in a hybrid multi-cloud. Containers and serverless in particular are gateways to a borderless IT future, in which services have the potential to operate seamlessly across public or private infrastructure, whether locally or remotely-hosted.

The problem for many is that the public side suffers from a range of challenges around the cost and management of services and platforms (Figure 3). Most notably, two-thirds of organisations report or expect that employees make uncoordinated, inappropriate or unauthorised decisions on cloud services. Add the difficulty of right-sizing your on-premise systems when many employees prefer – rightly or wrongly – to use cloud resources instead, and the complexity of managing hybrid services is clear.

Finding a way forward

So what’s needed to make a success of that search for flexibility? What are we looking for if we purchase HCI and adopt a hybrid multi-cloud strategy? Some vendors might have you believe that the ability to move costs from capital expenditure (CapEx) to operational (OpEx) is key. However, while survey respondents said it was useful to be able to mix and match their payment and operational models, this was not high on their radar.

Instead, seamless portability is the primary objective, with the ability to run tasks locally or remotely, and easily migrate them between the two and between different cloud platforms in a multi-cloud (Figure 4).

An important note here is that multi-cloud does not simply mean having multiple cloud platforms in use – many organisations have found themselves in this position, but by accident rather than by design. Multi-cloud refers instead to the deliberate decision to employ multiple clouds – whether public or private, or both – in a coordinated or coherent way, with the ability to seamlessly migrate workloads and/or data between them.

The Bottom Line

An organisation’s IT infrastructure always tries to reflect business needs, but in reality it often lags behind both current technology and modern service expectations. It may therefore end up reflecting the needs of the past, rather than trying to keep up with those of the future. The challenge for IT going forward is that it needs to be able to deliver multiple services quickly in order to keep up with rapidly changing business demands. That in turn means it requires much more flexible systems.

HCI, which combines local hardware with virtualisation and a cloud-native approach, is clearly an interesting option here. It offers a degree of comfort and familiarity in that it can run today’s workloads, but it also has the flexibility to go beyond that. In particular, HCI will have a key role to play in many organisations as the local or private element in a well managed multi-cloud solution.

Bryan Betts is sadly no longer with us. He worked as an analyst at Freeform Dynamics between July 2016 and February 2024, when he tragically passed away following an unexpected illness. We are proud to continue to host Bryan’s work as a tribute to his great contribution to the IT industry.