What is hyperconverged infrastructure?
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Published: 12 February 2024
Contributors: Josh Schneider, Ian Smalley

What is hyperconverged infrastructure?

Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) is a software-defined approach to data center infrastructure that uses virtualization to combine compute, networking and storage components into a single system managed by a hypervisor software layer. 

Whereas a traditional data center will use different pieces of hardware for different functions, hyperconverged systems use virtual machines (VMs) to create abstracts of each necessary component, all contained within commercially available commodity hardware. In this way, IT infrastructure solutions using hyperconvergence can streamline operations for an on-premises, high-performance and cost-effective alternative to traditional data centers and/or public cloud computing

Hyperconverged infrastructure vs. converged infrastructure

To gain a better understanding of hyperconverged infrastructure, it helps to compare the differences between HCI and converged infrastructure (CI):

Converged infrastructure

To combine compute, networking and storage features into one manageable system, data centers that employ a converged methodology integrate various components like servers, storage and networking into singular, pre-engineered solutions consisting of modular or purpose-built hardware. 

CI systems do simplify deployment and management compared to non-converged systems but fail to take full advantage of software virtualization. Although some elements of converged infrastructure are combined, these systems still require multiple pieces of unique hardware (which can be specialized and expensive) and IT support to integrate and manage the entire system. 

Hyperconverged infrastructure

Hyperconverged systems take convergence a step further. Instead of integrating various specialized hardware components, hyperconverged systems create virtual versions of each data center component (compute, storage and networking) within an industry-standard x86 server. 

A hyperconverged infrastructure solution provides admin access and resource automation through a software layer known as a hypervisor—a single system capable of integrating all virtual components into one hyperconverged platform.

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Key components of hyperconverged infrastructure

Both hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) and more traditional forms of IT infrastructure like converged infrastructure (CI) and non-converged infrastructure use different components to enable smooth business operations. However, while previous infrastructure models use different physical hardware components to accomplish different tasks, HCI hardware creates virtualized abstracts of each component within a single piece of hardware. The power, storage and capacity of HCI hardware is designed to be scalable. HCI can scale up to increase total infrastructure resources or scale out to increase individual component performance within a single piece of hardware.

HCI virtualizes traditional infrastructure components like compute, networking and storage components, and also adds a few new components to enable hyperconvergence. The following are the main software components of HCI:  

  • Hypervisor: A hypervisor is a specialized software layer that manages the workloads of hyperconverged systems by creating virtual machines (VMs), which function like digital representations of unique hardware components. 
  • Nodes: Within an HCI environment, a node is a self-contained unit comprising compute, storage and networking resources. Nodes work together to create a unified, virtualized IT infrastructure. 
  • Compute: Compute components run VMs and apps within hyperconverged platforms. 
  • Software-defined networking: The networking component of each node uses software-defined networking (SDN) to enable communication between nodes and facilitate data transfer within the HCI.
  • Software-defined storage (SDS): Software-defined storage (SDS) abstracts and virtualizes the underlying physical storage of data center components, eliminating the need for specialized storage arrays and allowing for a more efficient partitioning of total storage resources, whether using traditional solid state drives (SSD) or nonvolatile memory express (NVMe) storage.
Benefits of hyperconverged infrastructure

While hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) may not be suitable for every application, it does offer many benefits over more traditional types of IT infrastructure. Notably, HCI increases IT efficiency by automatically pooling resources and dynamically allocating those resources as needed. Through automation, HCI can help reduce the burden on IT teams and eliminate siloed or manual operations. Some additional advantages offered by HCI include the following:

Scalability

HCI solutions are inherently scalable and can scale up or scale out, allowing organizations to add entire nodes or increase compute, networking or storage resources to meet the demands of evolving workloads and changing business needs. 

Data protection

By centralizing data replication, HCI solutions offer improved data resiliency and data security through automation. HCI improves disaster recovery speeds and minimizes downtime.

Cost-effectiveness

HCI offers several ways to lower costs by streamlining data center infrastructure without specialized HCI appliances, reducing total cost of ownership (TCO) and operational expenses.

Automation

HCI uses automation to simplify provisioning and management, reducing the burden on IT teams. 

Compatibility

HCI avoids the challenges of hardware compatibility by combining all major data center components into a centralized system.

Use cases for hyperconverged infrastructure

The transformative power of hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) offers ample potential benefits to numerous sectors. A highly adaptable form of IT infrastructure, HCI can be applied across a wide range of applications and is suitable for most organizations in need of an agile, efficient and scalable IT solution capable of handling heavy workloads and large amounts of data storage. From government and civil service operations to large-scale public works and utilities, international business dealings to advanced scientific research, the ability to efficiently simplify infrastructure while accommodating organizational growth has made HCI a leading choice across a diverse range of use cases.

Healthcare

In the challenging field of healthcare, HCI has become a cornerstone of modernized and optimized data center infrastructure. By converging disparate systems, HCI streamlines electronic health record management while also ensuring compliance within a strict regulatory environment. HCI systems make safeguarding sensitive patient data easier, while also making that data easier to store and access. For educational institutions studying the field of medicine, HCI allows students, faculty and researchers seamless access to virtual learning environments powered by high-performance infrastructure.

Financial services

Elsewhere, HCI has also emerged as a valuable resource in the high-stakes financial services sector. Favored for its scalability and agility, financial institutions are leveraging HCI to quickly deploy critical applications, including online banking platforms, trading systems and risk management tools. Whereas scaling traditional forms of infrastructure can carry increased costs both in terms of money and time, HCI enhances operational efficiency for quick scalability without expensive, purpose-built hardware.

Retail

Retail is another sector taking advantage of HCI to integrate various disparate systems. HCI’s dynamic resource allocation allows retailers to dynamically manage complex tasks like inventory management, customer relationship management (CRM) and supply chain management, as well as merging online and brick-and-mortar business operations. With the power of HCI, retailers can better deliver personalized customer experiences to efficiently convert more sales with less wasted effort and energy.

Manufacturing

HCI has also proved to be highly valuable in the manufacturing sector, where streamlining demanding tasks like production, inventory management and logistics is a welcome benefit. HCI provides manufacturers with an optimized solution that offers increased resource efficiency, capability and scalability well-suited to meet fluctuating market conditions.

General business uses

Beyond these key sectors, the versatile nature of HCI excels in a number of modern sector-agnostic business applications that provide value across many different types of industries. Some general business applications that benefit from HCI’s efficient adaptability include the following:

  • Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI): The efficient and scalable nature of HCI makes it a top choice for VDI deployments. HCI is a popular choice for VDI for improving end-user experience and simplifying virtual desktop provisioning. 
  • High-performance applications: HCI systems are designed to accommodate even the most demanding workloads. Tasks requiring high-performance hardware—such as data analytics or advanced simulations—benefit from HCI’s ability to provide flexible compute and storage resources. 
  • Edge computing: Compact, scalable and virtualized by nature, HCI is well-suited for developing edge computing infrastructure, which seeks to decrease latency by processing cloud services physically closer to the actual end user.  
  • Multicloud environments: HCI’s component consolidation is highly compatible with various cloud environments allowing organizations to adopt a hybrid cloud strategy incorporating on-premises private cloud infrastructure and public cloud services.
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