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Explore five hyper-converged infrastructure vendors for VDI

HCI deployments are good for VDI, but finding the right vendor is tough. Nutanix, Cisco, SimpliVity and others offer strong options for VDI shops.

Hyper-converged infrastructure is a good match for the requirements of a VDI deployment because of its speed and...

simplicity.

With hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI), administrators can generally create a group of virtual desktops in less than an hour. Many HCI products also include data-efficient cloning, which allows IT to create virtual desktops in seconds. Another key feature of HCI products is a scale-out storage design, which helps deliver consistent performance. Adding HCI nodes increases the available compute capacity for desktops and improves disk space and performance.

Plus, HCI platforms deliver solid-state drive performance with ample CPU and RAM for desktops. Some hyper-converged infrastructure vendors support multiple hypervisors, but others only support VMware's vSphere. For customers who are not using VMware's VDI products, this could rule out some HCI options due to licensing costs.

It's important to understand what each HCI product brings to the table. Dive into information on five hyper-converged infrastructure vendors in the market to find out how each one distinguishes itself.

Nutanix

Nutanix, one of the first hyper-converged infrastructure vendors, targets VDI shops directly. Nutanix has a number of different hardware configurations, but its 2U rack-mount server appliance with four nodes is usually the best for VDI. For deployments requiring graphics acceleration for 3D or resource-intensive apps, Nutanix has a single platform model with space for three GPU cards.

Nutanix has partnerships with Dell and Lenovo, so its HCI is available to customers with existing server relationships with those companies. In addition to VMware vSphere and Microsoft Hyper-V support, Nutanix has its own hypervisor called Acropolis. Some VDI products include support for Acropolis, so IT shops can reduce VDI software licensing costs by using that hypervisor with Nutanix HCI.

SimpliVity

Understand what each HCI product brings to the table.

SimpliVity's data efficiency technology allows it to accommodate persistent desktops -- independent copies of the desktop's golden image users can alter to their liking -- without excessive storage costs. SimpliVity has published reference architectures for Citrix and VMware VDI. It has surprisingly high desktop density numbers, which means its HCI product requires fewer nodes per user, which reduces VDI deployment costs.

Admins can also add compute nodes from other vendors to a SimpliVity cluster. These servers get their storage from the HCI platform but do not contribute storage. Organizations do not have to buy compute nodes from any particular vendor and do not need local storage, except to boot a hypervisor. Compute nodes are the most flexible option for adding GPUs to a SimpliVity deployment.

SimpliVity partners with Cisco and Lenovo, which helps make HCI available to customers with restricted server vendor options.

VMware HCS and VSAN

VSAN is the storage appliance included in VMware's Hyper-Converged Software stack. Unless IT shops buy either the Advanced or Enterprise versions of VMware's VDI product, Horizon View, which comes with VSAN All-Flash storage, VSAN requires an additional license to enable the hypervisor.

VSAN allows IT to choose its own combination of storage speed and space. VSAN supports compute-only nodes that do not contribute storage to the VSAN cluster. Because admins can choose their own VSAN node model, it is easy to find nodes that support GPUs.

IT can use any server hardware on the VSAN compatibility list. For the best results, however, the company recommends IT shops use VSAN Ready certified hardware bundles.

Atlantis Computing

Atlantis Computing has its own software-defined storage product, USX, which serves as the foundation for its HCI product, HyperScale. Atlantis provides the HyperScale software; partners, including Cisco, Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Lenovo and Supermicro deliver an integrated product on qualified hardware.

HyperScale products are all-flash hyper-converged. Atlantis claims HyperScale is half the cost of other hyper-converged infrastructure vendors' offerings. All the hardware partners appear to use very dense servers -- either 1U servers or 2U enclosures with two or four nodes. The high-density nodes are often unable to accommodate hardware GPUs.

Cisco HyperFlex

Cisco, as usual, has many different vendor partners, including SimpliVity, VSAN Ready and Atlantis. It also has its own HCI brand, HyperFlex, which runs on a bundle of Springpath software and Unified Computing System (UCS) servers. Cisco deploys HyperFlex on the company's existing rack-mount servers.

Admins can manage HyperFlex through UCS Manager, the management console for provisioning storage, server and network resources. Cisco provides node bundles with its B-Series blade servers as compute-only nodes, which allows for greater server density than adding more rackmount servers. Both the rackmount and blade servers support adding GPU cards for 3D-enabled desktops.

Additional considerations

There are many HCI options for virtual desktops, and each is a little different than the last. Technical capabilities are not the only criteria to keep in mind. Admins need to decide on GPU expansion to accommodate 3D-accelerated desktops. They must also decide if they need to scale compute performance more rapidly than storage capacity, which could mean adding more compute nodes.

IT admins also need to keep in mind interoperation with existing systems. HCI will not necessarily make IT management simpler if it's not compatible with the tools an organization already has.

Next Steps

The definition of HCI is in flux

Why you should consider HCI for VDI

How well do you know HCI for VDI?

How to get the converged or hyper-converged job you want

This was last published in August 2016

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What do you look for in an HCI vendor for a VDI deployment?
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Anyone using a traditional 3 tiered architecture for VDI is just plain silly. The problems is that VDI workload consists of many, many small IO's generally, with the occasional "boot storm" where entire system images are read. 

Even if you have a robust SAN, the likelihood of a cache hit gets smaller with growth because cache is in a multi-use appliance serving different workloads with no particular affinity to any one of them. 

Nutanix architecture, specifically, manages storage within the infrastructure so that VDI instances DO have affinity to the storage that they are using and, using dedupe for common data, the probability of a requested group of blocks in an IO request being VERY near the CPU running that instance is quite high. 

This affinity vs. the tradition SAN or vs "HCI" architectures that use a traditional SAN, results in much lower latency and thus better performance. Nutanix is SURPRISINGLY fast with VDI workloads even when comparing performance against all flash!

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