Fast-growth companies find HCI’s simple management helps them scale.

May 29 2020

The Simplicity of HCI Helps Businesses Manage Rapid Growth

Organizations can start small and grow as they need to with hyperconverged infrastructure.

When Scott Barnhill started his job at NetDocuments in January 2016, the company was experiencing exponential growth. The cloud-based document management and productivity platform wanted to be best positioned for the future.

“I knew that the infrastructure I had wasn’t going to sustain that kind of growth,” recalls Barnhill, who is senior vice president of cloud operations for the company.

Like many growing organizations, the Lehi, Utah-based NetDocuments turned to a hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI), which replaces compute, storage and networking hardware with an integrated software-defined solution combining all three. A big draw is its scalability: Administrators can seamlessly ramp up HCI to accommodate organizational growth.

“We’re getting far more value for the money,” Barnhill says of NetDocuments’ Nutanix hyperconverged infrastructure. “The load on our platform has doubled every 18 months. I can’t imagine dealing with that the way we were doing it before. We would have run out of data center space. Instead, we actually grew our company but shrank our data center footprint.”

LEARN MORE: Find out how small businesses use HCI to get more from each IT staffer.

HCI Supports Growth for All Organizations

HCI is a good choice not only for gr­owing companies but for growing infrastructures. Rather than making a major capital expenditure amid other growth-related costs, organizations can start with a small HCI investment: a cluster of a few nodes that includes the compute power, storage and software to manage it all, says Sebastian Lagana, research manager for the infrastructure systems, platforms and technologies group at IDC. 

If they need more power down the road, they can buy more nodes. “It’s a lot more bite-sized, and it has everything you need in one box,” Lagana explains.

Smaller organizations don’t even need to invest in a full-scale HCI appliance to get started.

“You could buy a certified general purpose x86 server, put a VMware vSAN license on it, and now you’re operating HCI,” he says. “If you have the appliance, it’s a little more elegant way to do it, and you’ll get more feature functionality out of it. But if cost is a big driver, using a certified server will work and follows a similar purchasing cycle as just going out and buying a general purpose x86 server.”

The Technology Goes Above and Beyond

When companies first started to deploy HCI, it was like a test kitchen, explains Laura DiDio, principal of Information Technology Intelligence Consulting. Businesses often put it in secondary or tertiary workloads in the data center to see how it worked.

“Now it has moved up the food chain, and they are using it for the more complex, demanding applications,” she says. “Because when you deploy it right, it can be a very powerful solution. That’s where the name comes from: You’re converging technologies, and you’re putting them into hyperdrive.”

That was the case for NetDocuments. The company had originally purchased Nutanix HCI for a specific set of workloads, but soon after, it needed to scale a high-traffic, high-volume search engine running on virtual machines, and it didn’t have enough physical machines to scale it to the degree needed. 

Since the Nutanix hyperconverged infrastructure was available, the company spun up the search engine on it as a stopgap, with plans to order new servers.

“We ended up not ordering them, because the search engine ran considerably better on Nutanix than it did on the hardware,” Barnhill says.

NetDocuments Takes Steps to Expand Its Stack

NetDocuments experimented with some other applications on the Nutanix equipment and saw performance increases across the board. “When we saw how well it ran on the newer e­quipment, and then you layered on all of the administrative and the risk management benefits, it painted a pretty compelling picture,” he says. “So, we stepped deeper and faster into Nutanix than we intended to.”

Most of NetDocuments’ platform is now already on that hyperconverged stack, and the company plans to be at 100 percent within 18 months. “And it just takes a small team to take care of the global platform,” says Barnhill.

Barnhill inherited an infrastructure at NetDocuments in 2016 that was running virtual machines on hardware, but it didn’t have a proper shared storage architecture that would enable migrating a running machine from one server to another. If a single server running 25 virtual machines died, those VMs would go down while being transitioned to a new piece of hardware.

“Nutanix took away that risk for me,” Barnhill says, “because the operation of those machines is not tied to a potentially faulty piece of hardware.”

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Learn how to prep for an HCI launch.

Keeping It Simple with HCI

Another major driver in NetDocuments’ move to HCI was ­simplicity. At his previous job, Barnhill had separate network, hardware and storage teams. “Here, I have one team that had to take care of all of that, so I needed a degree of simplicity,” he says.

When he began looking at solutions, many were just traditional storage stacks combined with some new technologies from other vendors. “Nutanix was the only real game in town that was being delivered and engineered top to bottom by one company,” he says.

That brought the requirements for his team down to a single skill set. “Instead of creating storage, network, hardware and hypervisor experts, I just needed Nutanix experts,” he says.

Cost was a factor as well. The Nutanix AHV hypervisor had 80 percent of the features Barnhill wanted. At a prior position, he managed a far costlier, feature-rich hypervisor but only utilized about 40 percent of its offerings. “With Nutanix, you don’t feel like you’re paying for a lot of things you don’t need,” he says.

HCI also provides a more efficient use of the underlying hardware. “With virtualization, it’s like playing Tetris, meaning I can move stuff around dynamically and shape workloads to make the most efficient use of my underlying hardware,” he explains.

Scott Barnhill
We’re getting far more value for the money.”

Scott Barnhill Senior Vice President of Cloud Operations at NetDocuments