Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) is a future-looking technology that can help organizations overcome the challenges of shoestring budgets, increasing demands for data access, and the need to remain flexible in an era of continuous innovation.
While virtualization-based solutions in particular can be intimidating to healthcare organizations, the HCI can significantly improve overall efficiency as entities plan out the their IT infrastructure future.
HCI takes the basics of virtualization and applies them to an organization's storage, network, and computing functionalities. HCI consolidates IT processes and tools for a more manageable and efficient IT infrastructure.
Healthcare organizations leverage converged systems for use cases including digital workspaces and data center efficiency.
“Converged systems have become an important source of innovation and growth for the data center infrastructure market,” IDC Research Director of Enterprise Storage & Converged Systems Eric Sheppard said in a recent report.
“These solutions represent a conduit for the key technologies driving much needed data center modernization and efficiencies such as flash, software-defined infrastructure and private cloud platforms.”
HCI has the potential to increase scalability, cut back on overall hardware spending, and increase device security.
In order to see benefits from adopting this approach, healthcare organizations need to understand what hyperconvergence is, how it can be applied to their organizations, and where to begin integrating this technology into their IT infrastructure.
What is hyperconverged infrastructure?
Hyperconvergence virtualizes elements of datacenter infrastructure, including storage, networking, processing, and memory. The entire infrastructure is managed from a single place, which gives IT administrators more visibility and control over the entire environment.
Hyperconvergence can be run in a cloud or on-premise environment. By connecting and consolidating different parts of IT infrastructure through HCI, organizations can focus on modernizing applications and building better tools for users instead of spending unnecessary time and resources maintaining IT systems individually.
All HCI environments contain, at bare minimum, several shared components, including a hypervisor, virtualized networking, and virtualized storage.
Hypervisors create, run and monitor virtual machines within a server or host machine. Hypervisors control how much of the host machine’s processing power and memory is being used. This prevents multiple virtual machines from interfering with one another.
The hypervisor allows organizations to run multiple virtual environments in a single server. The hypervisor acts as a distributor of hardware resources so organizations can get the most out of their servers.
Virtualized networking in the form of software-defined networking (SDN) is also common in hyperconvergence. SDN allows IT administrators to manage the network through abstraction, which gives apps and programs a simplified platform to operate on. In turn, this allows the administrators to keep more control over the network.
The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) describes SDN as the “physical separation of the network control plane from the forwarding plane, and where a control plane controls several devices.”
SDN separates the network into several different planes, which allows IT to dynamically shape their network depending on what tasks they need to accomplish. This gives IT more control over how network resources are used.
Software-defined data centers (SDDCs) are also key components of HCI. SDDCs, sometimes referred to as a virtual data center, use virtualization concepts geared toward automating and abstracting data center resources. Each element of the infrastructure, including networking, security, and storage, is virtualized and implemented as a service.
SDDCs use abstraction to bring different components of infrastructure architecture together, usually managed through an application programming interface (API). APIs abstract the layers of virtual technology within the data center, only displaying functions critical to the developer.
SDDCs and SDN both simplify management by automating processes and consolidating functions to make them easier to manage resulting in a hyperconverged environment. Both these solutions, along with hypervisors, work together to provide a virtualized environment that is flexible, scalable, and manageable within the data center.
HCI arranges private data centers so that they function similarly to the public cloud, from a user perspective, offering simplicity and scalability with less hands-on work required.
Benefits of Hyperconverged Infrastructure
The benefits of HCI include workload focus, data efficiency, elasticity, and data protection, according to hyperconverged.org.
HCI focuses on the workload instead of logical unit numbers (LUNs) and clusters. This allows the applications to be the main focal point. HCI supports many applications for a variety of different devices. The complexities behind supporting workloads are stripped away, allowing applications to be the hub of infrastructure development and interaction for IT administrators.
HCI processes data more efficiently than traditional means. HCI deduplicates data and compresses it so organizations can significantly reduce the amount of storage space they need, as well as reducing their network bandwidth requirements.
HCI deduplicates copy data so files without the latest updates are deleted to make room for new data. Files that have been copied for sharing purposes or data migration are deleted to make room for new data.
Elasticity is one of the major cost benefits of HCI. Organizations can digitally scale out their IT infrastructure instead of investing in hardware. Typically, organizations need to refresh their storage hardware once every 3 to 5 years.
The investment required to scale out HCI is typically even less than that of all-flash storage systems, says Lee Caswell, VMware VP of Products, Storage and Availability.
“You can get started for about half the cost,” Caswell explained to HITInfrastructure.com. “Organizations buy these in server increments, so they're more like bite-sized chunks, as opposed to something that's so big and can’t be reconfigured.”
While HCI doesn’t eliminate the need for physical servers if deployed on-premises, organizations can invest in hardware that is easier to scale and get the most out of fewer machines.
HCI resources can also be dedicated to other workloads if a certain workload is no longer needed by engaging in load balancing. This reduces how often organizations need to scale up their infrastructure in response to more data coming in and requiring storage.
Many HCI models have backup and recovery solutions built in so organizations can better protect their data. Data backup and recovery solutions tend to be simplified with HCI because they are automated.
Eliminating complexity in the data center makes it easier to back up data.
“When a hyperconvergence manufacturer has access to the entire infrastructure stack, data protection mechanisms like backup and replication can be baked in to the platform,” says hyperconverged.org.
“As opposed to yet another interface to manage from, a hyperconverged solution can offer you simple yet robust disaster recovery options natively.”
HCI also speeds up processes because each process is made up of fewer steps. Users are less responsible for their own environments because IT has control over the workload applications and the network. This control produces a more secure environment that is less vulnerable to human error. For example, IT can have control over user logins which can reduce the chances of passwords getting stolen.
Healthcare applications of hyperconvergence
A common use case for HCI in healthcare is improving clinician login times.
Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) uses abstraction to remote desktop operating systems to mobile devices. VDI separates the desktop environment and application layer from a user’s endpoint device. Users access their personal desktop via any thin client device on the network without having to go through a long login process.
The desktop operating system is hosted on a centralized server in an organization’s data center. Instead of logging into a cloud service, bringing up a personal profile stored on the cloud, and logging into each app individually, VDI allows end-users to use a simulated version of the personalized desktop on their main computer or endpoint device.
One of the biggest IT infrastructure challenges is how to reduce clinician login times so they can spend more time interacting with the patients. Clinicians use many applications in their daily interactions with patients and need to log into and out of applications constantly throughout the day due to security protocols.
Every time a clinician visits a different room with a different patient, they have to login as their persona on each application. Clinicians can spend as much as 10 minutes per engagement just logging into applications.
Logging into VDI workspaces significantly impacts patient and clinician interaction at the point of care and also lets clinicians securely login to their personal digital workspace from any device and pick up where they left off.
Southern New Hampshire Health (SNHH) is one organization that uses hyperconverged infrastructure to grant their clinicians instant logins to their workspaces.
Desktop Configuration Engineer Scot Tymowicz explained that passwords in most legacy healthcare environments are typed out an average of nine times during a login: to access the desktop, an email account, and any medical applications used for that session.
“Staff doesn’t want to have to worry about their passwords,” Tymowicz stated. “As HIPAA-compliance becomes more complex and medical regulations become more complex, IT’s job is to make sure that environment is secure. IT can’t do that if nurses are using sticky notes with their son’s birthday on it as their password right on the computer; that’s not a secure environment.”
“A secure environment is IT enforcing a 10 or 20-character alphanumeric password, with dollar signs and periods and numbers that staff never has to type because all they have to do is wave their badge,” he continued.
“We have a highly secure environment, but it’s extremely easy and seamless for the end-users. It’s a win-win for everyone. I made it easier for my end-users to get to their resources to do their jobs, and I win because it’s highly secure.”
SNHH uses wheeled, wireless computers on all their clinician floors for users to take with them into exam rooms.
The clinicians only need to tap their badge on any desktop to gain access to their personal virtual desktop, making login times much faster so they can spend more time focusing on doing their job.
These reduced login times also impact emergency response times. If a clinician is on their VDI environment and there’s an emergency that needs her immediate attention, she can tap her badge to lock her current session, move to another area of the facility to deal with the emergency and tap her badge to instantly re-access her VDI environment with all of her applications.
How to approach hyperconverged infrastructure
HCI implementations are less intense than some other IT infrastructure deployments because they don’t require ripping out and replacing other tools. Organizations can move as quickly or as slowly with their implementation as their skills and budget allow.
HCI can also work smoothly alongside other existing infrastructure systems. This gives organizations time to build a solid approach and develop a timeline that won’t disrupt critical operations.
Organizations must first decide whether to deploy the HCI on-premises or in the cloud. Cloud has advantages as far as physical space, but, on-premises deployments give IT more control over the environment.
On-premises servers can actually save organizations money in the long run, asserts Caswell.
“Organizations have looked at the cloud and realized that it's flexible, but it's not cheap,” Caswell advised. “It's like a rental car. It's great for a day. It's good for a week, but if you rent a car for a year, you start thinking, ‘I could lease or own that car. It'd be less expensive, and I know how to drive a car.’”
Organizations have to replace their on-premises servers periodically. A good time to begin building a hyperconverged solution is when the servers need to be replaced. This is an opportunity to look into servers that will be more accommodating for HCI, such as flash array.
Flash array is made up of multiple solid state disk drives that are more stable than the spinning disks found in hard disk drives. The flash drives transfer data faster than hard disk drives and are easier to reprogram.
Flash-based arrays are also cheaper to physically deploy and maintain. Without the spinning disks, the array does not need as much power to run.
“If you want is to be responsive and flexible, HCI gives you that by having a building block approach where you've got servers that are smaller increments and less expensive,” said Caswell.
“To scale it up, you just buy another server, and that adds to both the compute and then the storage piece as well. You had a little bit more inbred flexibility, and now you have a cost basis that looks more like the economics that you like.”
“Healthcare really values the choice of server,” he continued. “HCI gives organizations the flexibility of choosing the hardware that they want.”
Once the method and storage aspect is finalized, testing needs to occur. Organizations need to have a solid team that can test and develop proof of concept. The new environment needs to be assessed to see how it impacts current infrastructure. This will help organizations understand how the technology fits in and make it clear how it can be further applied to the rest of the IT infrastructure as well as future tools.
Hyperconverged infrastructure is a realistic option for healthcare organizations looking to enhance their IT infrastructure and prepare for future technology regardless of timeline or budget. Consolidating IT infrastructure tools makes it easier to manage and refine current tools as well as add new tools in the future. Building a strategy and integrating it into existing infrastructure will help entities build towards a better and more efficient IT ecosystem.
This article was originally published on March 23, 2018.