Software-only solutions vs. hardware-based ones: which one will be a perfect fit for your hyperconverged environment?

Introduction

These days, hyperconverged solutions become increasingly prevalent in small- and medium-size datacenters. And, there’s no wonder: hyperconverged infrastructures (HCI) provide decent reliability and set of features typically associated with large datacenters… but for less money! So, why pay more?

What we, actually, are looking at

If you look carefully at the technology itself, the term “hyperconverged solution” may seem pretty broad for you. Generally speaking, hyperconvergence is an up-to-date alternative to converged infrastructures – environments that have dedicated servers for storage and compute. Hyperconverged solutions, in their turn, group compute power, storage capacity, networking, and virtualization technologies in ONE device orchestrated with ONE piece of software. And, if you dig deeper into the technology, you’ll find out that there, are two approaches to building hyperconverged environments: appliance-based and software-only. Let’s look closer at each concept:

Today, I’ll answer questions that may pop up in your head while looking for an hyperconverged solution and analyze both approaches to pick the most prospective one.

Is it easy to deploy?

Talking of ease of deployment, hardware-based solution beat the software-based ones. The former are presented as “turnkey solutions”. In other words, by ordering an appliance, you get a ready-to-go infrastructure. Such solutions enable small and medium businesses to cut down time, resources, and money they spend on deploying and maintaining HCI solutions. The only thing they need to start working with it is to plug the appliance into the socket.

Things look a bit more complicated for software-based solutions. At this point, I’d like to note that each of them is special. It may be a simple solution that does not need any special skills or extra investments for deployment. Yet, it can also be software that requires dedicated hardware, configuration, and testing. In addition, some software-only solutions management may turn out to be overwhelmingly complicated for your IT department. Sure, all vendors provide you with their software support for an extra penny, but what about hardware? Good news, you can run it on the environment you already used to. But, there’s another side of the coin: you are to maintain it too. This may take you a while and turn out to be harder than just buying a ready-to-go solution.

How flexible is the resulting environment?

Even though hardware-based HCI are easy to deploy, they do not provide decent flexibility. Especially, the solutions that are created by big vendors. They are designed as “out of the box” solutions and run on specific server models. This means that the resulting infrastructure may not work out if you put together several components, even though they were developed by one vendor. Well, this flaw is not typical for Nutanix and StarWind Software. These guys do not stick to the particular hardware, so their appliances should stay as flexible as possible.

Another thing about buying the solution “from the box” is scalability. Sure, you can add CPU, RAM, and storage capacity … only within the existing appliance. Furthermore, vendors will help you scale up. But, once you reach, let’s say, performance ceiling, you are to buy the entire appliance even if you still are ok with the existing RAM and storage capacity. And, what is more important, the software layer is included in the total bill! So, you pay for that thing twice.

Things look better for software-only solutions. You can just grab the hardware you are used to and install software on top of it. And, that’s it! Should you run out of RAM, you do not need to buy a whole server! For extra money, you can also scale-out up to 64 hosts in a cluster. Also, note that all those servers can be from multiple vendors. Some vendors (Maxta and StarWind Software) even help you with migration. In this way, with a software-only solution, you can build a DIY infrastructure using components you want, but not something a vendor says.

How fast does that thing recover?

Talking about troubleshooting, software-only HCIs are not that good as hardware-based ones. Appliances developed by large vendors have powerful support and monitoring systems. These guys are not only part of TSANET but also have their own support teams all around the world. So, even if hardware goes down, it can be swapped quickly. What is more, they have many authorized partners that make the entire troubleshooting process faster. Smaller companies (i.e., Nutanix, Oracle, or StarWind Software), in their turn, will also take care of your hardware, but troubleshooting hardware-related problems is slower because these guys work only in terms of TSANET. On the other hand, their solutions and support services are more affordable.

Some software-based solutions licenses also provide one point of support. The vendor that supports the software layer may help you with hardware too. Sure, such support is also cheap, but it may be a bit slower.

What about resulting infrastructure management?  

Well, hyperconvergence itself pushes vendors to make infrastructure monitoring, management, and updating more user-friendly. Also, they realize that remote management is a must these days. So, both HCI types are pretty cool and simple in management. Generally speaking, they are aimed at enabling the team of one or two admins to cope with the whole infrastructure. These both solution types are simpler and more straightforward to manage than converged ones.

The only difference between software-only and hardware-based solutions is unification of the later. Vendors create a perfect match between the hardware and software and free the end-user from worrying about compatibility. Often, they bunch appliances with 24/7 servicing that entirely removes all concerns about solution management. Well, such a great service is rarely seen in software-only HCIs.

Ok, how much should I pay?

Obviously, hardware-based solutions are more expensive than software-only ones. The former add some zeroes to their total operating costs and price of deployment due to hardware.

Should a user decide to upgrade an appliance, things get even worse. Typically, it’s not only about the hardware itself but also additional licensing. And, you know what admins usually do? Right, they run productions on outdated hardware because buying a new one and its further implementation will break their budgets. Actually, the same applies to scaling. For instance, if an appliance runs out of storage and there’re no more slots left, the owner should pay a dime to buy and license a new shiny server from that vendor. You, basically, cannot just take a random server with more slots or with higher capacity.

Software-based solutions do not work like that. They are more flexible. The most can do well with whatever hardware, and their licenses typically do not stick to the particular hardware. So, their owners do not need to pay for the imposed hardware. What does it mean for admins? Well, they can update hardware more often than their colleagues who run production on the hardware-based HCI.

Also, software-only HCI scale not that tough. For some vendors, scaling is just a matter of difference between the current and more advanced license, while others won’t even ask you a nickel for that!

Conclusions

Now, let’s put everything we wrote above together. I, basically, cannot say that any of the reviewed solutions dominates over another one. Both suit any environment, be it massive or small. And, looking back at converged solutions, both HCI types seem a real breakthrough. To sum things up, here’s the pivot table:

 
 HCI Type
 Hardware-based  Software-only
 Deployment simplicity  + – 
 Flexibility   – 
 Troubleshooting rate   +  – 
 Management simplicity   +  – 
 Price  –

Hardware-based solutions, thanks to their “out-of-the-box” design, are simpler to deploy. Software-only HCI, in their turn, come in handy when flexibility is needed. They also may be the solution of choice in case of budget limitations.

But, wait, which one you should choose? Well, I cannot decide on the best type that easy. Sure, hardware-based solutions scored one point more than software-only ones, but it does not mean that they are the “one-size-fits-all” solution. Furthermore, some vendors (i.e., VMware and StarWind Software) provide you both HCI types. What I’m saying is that it’s up to your needs and your environment architecture. So, think twice, look at your hardware, and go hyperconverged!