HCI Leads Way for Government Digital Transformation

Hyperconverged infrastructure helps government agencies with data center consolidation.

Federal agencies are under increasing pressure to both cut the size and operating costs of their data centers. At the same time improve the security and efficiencies of their remaining systems. That’s a tall order, and it’s making solutions such as hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) look more suitable as a way to quickly meet these mandates.

Those mandates are certainly nothing new. In 2010, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) launched the Federal Data Center Consolidation Initiative (FDDCI) as its first formal attempt to drive down data center costs. Then in 2014, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) put those goals into law; requiring agencies to develop multi-year strategies for consolidating and optimizing their datacenters and report annually on their progress.

In 2016, OMB issued a new memo detailing what it calls the Data Center Optimization Initiative (DCOI). This replaced the FDDCI with a set of expanded requirements and even more ambitious goals. From a FY2014 spend of $5.4 billion on government data centers, OMB expects the DCOI to deliver a total of $2.7 billion in savings by the end of FY2018, and the closure of more than half of overall federal data center inventory.

Along the way, the technologies and techniques for delivering both consolidation and optimization of datacenters have also improved. Servers and storage system virtualization evolved into converged infrastructures; in which data center servers, storage, and networking are brought together in a centrally managed framework. The results are lower capital and operating costs and an increase in flexibility and scalability. HCI takes that a step further by combining those compute, storage, and networking elements into a single software-defined solution that provides plug-and-play capability with existing agency IT infrastructure.

Government agencies find the simplicity of this solution as their main attraction, says Kirk Kern, chief technology officer for NetApp’s U.S. public sector division. With converged infrastructures, agencies have multiple storage, compute and networking layers that must be accommodated separately. HCI consolidates those functions one step farther. “You have one system and everything is done within that one platform,” says Kern.

“In terms of ease of use, once you cable them up and provision the boxes, HCI solutions tend to present a single pane of glass with one interface for managing all three layers,” he says. “That’s really what the main attraction of HCI is today.”

It’s important not to view HCI as the single answer to all data center consolidation needs, says Kern. The decision whether to use it or not will be driven by mission needs. Most workloads will be able to run on HCI, but scalability can be an issue. Workloads that approach petabytes of data, for example, might be better suited to separated stacks where people can manage the CPU and storage requirements as needed.

“So from a management perspective for multiple workloads, HCI can be a more complicated animal,” says Kern. “But from a hardware perspective it’s fairly generic, and (HCI) can slot into any existing data center without a lot of adaptation or change.”

Some of the predictions for the growth of HCI are explosive. Market researcher Gartner, for example, thinks the HCI sector overall could be worth $5 billion by 2019, from a standing start in 2012. Kern thinks that’s not unreasonable, given the level of interest he’s seen from government customers. Whether that interest turns into actual demand is the question.

When you get from that level of interest to considering engineering specifics about security and performance requirements, how much they need to scale the solution, and so on is when HCI makes the most sense. “It all depends on whether they are will to make tradeoffs for that upfront simplicity of HCI,” he says. “Time will tell.”