Information technology infrastructure is made up of many components, servers, storage, networking hardware, systems management software, and more. This can lead to a complex system being built up of components from several different suppliers.
What converged infrastructure does is to bring together all of these things into a single, integrated package. For businesses this means that they can centralise the management of all their IT resources with a view to increasing utilisation and cutting costs. Converged infrastructure is often associated with the cloud and outsourcing, but it can work just as well applied internally within large organisations too.
Origins and benefits
Converged infrastructure has its roots in the data centre. But where historically these have acted as silos, holding information for a particular application or division of an organisation, that has meant inflexibility in being able to reconfigure systems to cope with demand. It has also meant high operational costs, partly because systems need to be over provisioned in order to be able to cope quickly with variations in demand..
A converged infrastructure – whilst still essentially a data centre – addresses these problems by means of pooling and sharing technology resources. Instead of an individual server being dedicated to the needs of a department or application, virtualised servers are used, along with a pool of storage and communications infrastructure, to share capacity across the business and make more efficient use of computing resources, thus lowering costs.
CI can be built on a pool of readily available x86 hardware, so there’s no need for individual specialised components and the environment can be easily expanded at low cost. Management of systems can be centralised as the data centre becomes software defined, reducing administration and setup costs.
For the user this means lower capital and operating costs, easier management and a single point of contact in the event of problems too. But converged infrastructure also has benefits for the data centre which can cut its costs for power, cooling, cabling and even floor space.
As more and more systems are being moved towards the cloud, a converged infrastructure approach can prove to be a useful halfway house, creating an infrastructure that is cloud ready, even if in the short term it isn’t entirely cloud hosted. In this sense it has a lot in common with infrastructure-as-a-service offerings. It can also act as an effective platform for other cloud services like platform-as-a-service and software-as-a-service.
A converged infrastructure can be implemented in a number of ways. Most commonly it’s done either with a CI reference architecture, using standalone appliances, or increasingly with a software driven hyper-converged approach.
In the former approach the supplier will offer solutions based on hardware components in the data centre designed to meet the customer’s workload. Server specialists like Dell, HP and Cisco offer off-the-shelf converged infrastructure solutions. As demand grows this involves adding additional hardware appliances in order to scale up the system.
With a hyper-converged installation, the client’s requirements are physically separate from the hardware, with systems being provided on a virtualised basis. This allows for greater flexibility and often customers can manage their own resources via a control panel, making it simple to scale up resources to meet peaks in demand for example. It’s also possible with this model to have additional resources on tap to cater for unforeseen circumstances, such as disaster recovery scenarios.
Although the market currently only accounts for around $2 billion a year, a 2016 report by Gartner suggests that hyper-converged systems are set to become mainstream over the next five years.
Although converged infrastructure has many attractions, it isn’t right for all situations. A move to CI makes sense if an upgrade to systems is in the offing anyway. This allows the business to future proof its investment and have better control of costs in the long term. However, there is a risk that previous investment in hardware doesn’t realise its full value, particularly if parts of the system have to be replaced before the end of their normal life.
For companies dealing with sensitive data, in the financial and medical sectors for example, the idea of contracting out infrastructure also raises issues of security and compliance. Even if implemented on in house hardware there would need to be safeguards to ensure the separation of systems.
Businesses also need to look carefully at whether their needs can be met by a pre-configured infrastructure bundle or if they’d be better building a bespoke solution. Another potential drawback to consider is whether you’ll become tied to a particular service provider. Of course virtual machines are easily portable, but moving your servers and storace to another CI provider could still prove a major undertaking.
The future of business computing seems increasingly to lie in the cloud. But many large organisations prefer the control and security of private cloud systems. Research company IDC predicts that the private cloud market will be worth $22.2 billion by 2017, almost double where it was in 2012.
Converged infrastructure provides an attractive solution to underpin this private cloud investment. It supports virtualised servers, containerisation and all of the other solutions needed to make it possible to shift workloads and create hybrid environments that make it possible to take advantage of the best features of public and private cloud.
The adoption of CI addresses specific needs, but it also confers wider benefits in terms of scalability and cost. As CI gains in popularity we’re likely to see increased availability of readily available modular ‘building block’ solutions from the major suppliers. These will make it easier for companies to scale up their operations even if they choose to create a converged infrastructure in house instead of relying on a third-party supplier.
Whatever route to CI a business chooses to take, it’s clear that solutions need to support an open and dynamic environment. When choosing a system now it’s vital to look ahead to future needs and ensure that it will support those too.
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