Cisco Throws Its Hat in the HCI Ring with HyperFlex

To the surprise of no one but to the delight of some, Cisco unveiled their official entry into the hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) market today. While there have been preceding Cisco partnerships with HCI vendors like SimpliVity and Maxta, the newly-announced Cisco HyperFlex Systems provide the first Cisco-only branded and supported HCI offering.

Cisco HyperFlex Systems: Hardware

HyperFlex_Portfolio2

The HyperFlex systems consists of two main physical components: Cisco UCS servers for compute and storage, and UCS Fabric Interconnects (FIs)for management. The FIs can be either 6248 or 6296, and there will be two flavors of the servers: HX220c nodes, based upon the UCS C220 platform, and HX240c nodes, based upon the UCS C240 platform. A hybrid cluster that includes UCS B200 blades will also be supported.

The product will be initially offered as bundles of servers plus Fabric Interconnects, with individual servers available to add-on to an existing cluster. The smallest bundle will consist of three nodes (plus FIs) and is priced at under $60k US, while a four node bundle will be offered for less than $70k.

HyperFlex_3nodeBundle

HyperFlex clusters require a minimum of three converged servers, and in the first release can support as many as eight in the same cluster. Servers will be fully configurable at time of order, so customers won’t be as restricted in their component choices as with many other HCI vendors. It’s also worth noting that different node types can be mixed within the same cluster.

New Fabric Interconnects are required for HyperFlex systems, but there are future plans to allow customers to re-use existing FIs, and/or to incorporate into existing UCS systems, rather than having to purchase new FIs.

Cisco HyperFlex Systems: Software

Hypervisors

Unsurprisingly, VMware vSphere is the hypervisor of choice for HyperFlex, and systems will ship with vSphere pre-installed. Hyper-V support will rapidly follow, and the development team is looking hard at both KVM and containers – with the latter a more likely tertiary target than KVM itself.

Storage services

The defining characteristic of HCI – software-defined storage, or as I prefer to call it in this context, aggregated DAS – is provided by Cisco’s HX Data Platform using technology from HCI startup vendor Springpath. Cisco states that their storage implementation is more performant, more resilient, and allows for faster recovery than other HCI platforms.  With HX Data Platform all write data is striped across all nodes simultaneously, rather than the more typical write-local-and-remote methodology.

As has become table stakes for HCI, inline deduplication and inline compression are both provided, though unlike some vendors neither can be turned off but are always enabled.

Management

Cisco, echoing my own experience, says that customers have insisted that they do not want yet-another-management-interface, as is so common in both converged and hyperconverged products, but instead want this new architecture to get incorporated within the context of their current management platforms.  On-going HyperFlex management is comprised of UCS Manager and vCenter, with vCenter expected to be the primary interface for daily operations. HCI operations are embedded within the vCenter UI via the standard UCS Manager plugin and an HX Data Platform plugin. The HX plugin integrates pointer-based snapshots into the vCenter Snapshot Manager, and provides rapid VAAI-assisted VM cloning.

Further down the road are UCS Director and ACI integrations to help Cisco tie HyperFlex into the rest of their datacenter infrastructure and provide full automation and orchestration capabilities (which are lacking in this first release).

Competitiveness

With HyperFlex, Cisco is trying to address some of the deficiencies seen by many of the current crop of HCI vendors:

Independent scaling of compute vs. capacity

HyperFlex supports the addition of compute-only nodes into the cluster. These compute hosts connect to shared storage presented by the converged nodes via a proprietary IOVisor software (not to be confused with the open source and networking-focused IO Visor project).

In the initial release, compute-only nodes can be added to a cluster that already has at least four converged nodes, with a total of four compute-only nodes supported in a  cluster. This means that the largest cluster size supported in the first release is twelve: eight converged nodes and four compute-only nodes. Going forward, there will need to be at least as many converged nodes as compute-only nodes.

Cisco has stressed that is a matter of qualification time and cycles to begin supporting larger cluster sizes, rather than a technical or hard limitation.

Complete convergence

As many people have noted, despite the hyper-moniker the current slate of HCI vendors don’t handle networking convergence at all. With UCS Manager and the Fabric Interconnects, Cisco is providing the same level of convergence as with their standard UCS servers, which, to be frank, helped popularize the entire idea of “converged infrastrucure.” In addition, Cisco has the full SDN capabilities of ACI to wrap and extend the solution from the application to the edge – something no one, other than VMware themselves, can do today.

Summary

Until we get our hands on it and break play with it, the jury is, of course, still out on HyperFlex. On its face, however, Cisco have taken an interesting approach and appear to have a strong product. If the execution can match the overall design and put meat on the current bones of the roadmap, the HCI space will get very interesting over the next 12-18 months.

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