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Analyzing the Benefits of Deploying Cisco HyperFlex in a Global Financial Services Institution

The CIO Imperative

The Multicloud Opportunity for Partners with Dell APEX

By Alex Arcilla, Senior Validation Analyst


This ESG Validation report documents the results of bake-off testing conducted by a global financial services institution between Cisco HyperFlex and a competitive hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) solution. We evaluate the results of this testing, specifically how this organization benefited from the simplicity of installation and management, the ease of platform upgrades and expansion, and Cisco’s professional services.


According to ESG research, 64% of respondents consider data center infrastructure technology to be strategic. In other words, by leveraging the right data center technologies, in conjunction with data center infrastructure design strategies, the respondents believe that they can gain competitive advantage. The evaluation process then becomes critical in purchasing data center technologies. When evaluating data center technologies, criteria that respondents cited will greatly influence purchase decisions involve how well organizations can minimize downtime, such as the level and quality of support (30%), ease of deployment (29%), and ease of administration (25%, see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Greatest Influences on Data Center Infrastructure Purchases

Which of the following buying criteria will have the greatest influence on your organization’s data center infrastructure purchase? (Percent of respondents, N=303, three responses accepted)

Source: ESG, a division of TechTarget, Inc.

For financial institutions, unnecessary application downtime directly translates into lost money—in the range of thousands to tens of thousands of dollars per hour. Minimizing the time spent on operational tasks, such as deploying and configuring the underlying hardware, downloading the proper versions of software, and resolving service-affecting issues directly affects application availability.
To minimize the time spent deploying hardware, organizations have turned to hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) so that they can scale both compute and storage resources more quickly, as opposed to purchasing separate server, storage, and storage networking components. Yet, each HCI solution offers different workflows for organizations to configure and manage these solutions, varying in both time and amount of manual effort required. Simplifying how these tasks are completed will only help to further minimize application downtime.

Cisco HyperFlex

Cisco HyperFlex is a fully engineered hyperconverged system that combines compute and software-defined storage as well as fully integrated networking optimized for the east-west traffic flow between nodes in an HCI platform. This fully integrated platform is designed to scale resources independently and deliver consistent high performance. Cisco HyperFlex is engineered on Cisco UCS, combining the benefits of the UCS platform (such as policy-based automation for servers and networking) with those of the HX Data Platform’s distributed file system for hyperconvergence.
It supports end-to-end workloads from mission-critical core data center applications to remote locations. HX offers a range of hybrid, all-flash, and all-NVMe nodes in order to support a broad range of mission-critical workloads. HyperFlex deployments require a minimum two-node cluster in data center deployments for high availability, with data replicated across multiple nodes for data protection purposes (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Cisco HyperFlex Architecture
HyperFlex HX-Series Nodes are engineered on the Cisco UCS platform and powered by the latest generation of Intel Xeon Scalable processors, as well as the third-generation AMD EPYC processors. Nodes were comprised of the following:
  • Cisco HyperFlex HX Data Platform. The core of any HCI solution is the software platform, and the HX Data Platform was engineered specifically for HCI software-defined storage. Operating as a controller on each node, the HX Data Platform is a high-performance, distributed file system that combines all SSD and HDD capacity across the cluster into a distributed, multi-tier, object-based data store, striping data evenly across the cluster. It also delivers enterprise data services such as snapshots, thin provisioning, and instant clones. Policy-based data replication across the cluster ensures high availability. Dynamic data placement in memory, cache, and capacity tiers optimize application performance, while inline, always-on deduplication and compression optimize capacity.

    • The HX Data Platform handles all read and write requests for volumes accessed by the hypervisor. By striping data evenly across the cluster, network and storage hotspots are avoided, and VMs enjoy optimal I/O performance regardless of location. Writes go to local SSD or NVMe cache and are replicated to remote SSDs in parallel before the write is acknowledged. Reads are from cache, if possible, or are retrieved from remote SSDs.

    • The log-structured file system is a distributed object store that uses a configurable SSD or NVMe cache to speed reads and writes, with capacity in HDD (hybrid), SSD (all-flash), or all-NVMe persistent tiers. When data is de-staged to persistent tiers, a single sequential operation writes data to enhance performance. Inline deduplication and compression occur when data is de-staged; data is moved after the write is acknowledged so there is no performance impact.

    • Cisco’s partnerships with Cohesity and Veeam enable customers with data protection capabilities to address secondary data requirements, including target storage, backup, replication, and disaster recovery, so as to meet stringent RTOs and RPOs.

  • Cisco UCS compute-only nodes. Both UCS blade and rack servers can be combined in the cluster, with a single network hop between any two nodes for maximum east-west bandwidth and low latency. HyperFlex lets you alter the ratio of CPU-intensive blades or servers—compute nodes—to storage-intensive capacity nodes—HX nodes—so users can optimize the system as application needs shift.

  • Cisco Unified Fabric. UCS 6200/6300/6400 Fabric Interconnects enable software-defined networking. High bandwidth, low latency, and 10/25/40Gbps connectivity in the fabric enable high availability as data is securely distributed and replicated across the cluster. The network enables HX clusters to scale easily and securely. The single hop architecture is designed to maximize the efficiency of the storage software to enhance overall cluster performance.

  • Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) for automated provisioning. ACI enables automation of network deployment, application services, security polices, and workload placement per defined service profiles. This provides faster, more accurate, more secure, lower cost deployments. ACI automatically routes traffic to optimize performance and resource utilization and reroutes traffic around hotspots for optimal performance.

  • Choice of industry-leading hypervisors, including VMware ESXi and vCenter, Microsoft Hyper-V, and Cisco Intersight Workload Engine (IWE). Cisco IWE enables container-native virtualization for Cisco HyperFlex.

Cisco HyperFlex delivers numerous benefits, including:

  • High performance. In addition to performance features mentioned above, HyperFlex Dynamic Data Distribution securely and evenly distributes data across all cluster nodes to reduce bottlenecks.

  • Fast, easy deployment. This pre-integrated cluster can be deployed just by plugging into the network and applying power. Node configuration and connection is handled through Cisco UCS service profiles. Cisco says that customers report typical deployment times of less than one hour.

  • Consolidated management. Systems are monitored and managed through Cisco Intersight, VMware vCenter plugin, or Cisco HyperFlex Connect, which eliminates separate management silos for compute and storage. HyperFlex Connect lets organizations manage and monitor clusters from anywhere and at any time with metrics and trends to support the entire management lifecycle.

  • Independent scaling. Different from other HCI systems, HyperFlex can independently scale compute and storage resources without the need to add full nodes to the cluster. Users can easily incorporate compute-only nodes with bare UCS servers through the Fabric Interconnects to add additional compute to the cluster or, if more storage is needed, add individual drives to each node; data is automatically rebalanced. This provides the right resources for different application needs instead of scaling in predefined node increments that also add additional software licensing costs.

ESG Technical Validation

ESG reviewed the results of “bake-off” testing conducted by a global financial services company. Headquartered in New York, NY, this bank operates in 30+ countries globally. To date, Cisco HyperFlex has supported the bank’s UCS management plane, VMware vRealize Operations Center, VMware vRealize login site, and greenfield VMware vCenters.
The bank conducts head-to-head bake-offs when recommending a standard hardware architecture for new application deployments. During this specific bake-off, the bank evaluated HCI solutions to support its shared virtual server infrastructure using VMware ESXi. Testing was conducted over a five-month period within one of the bank’s data centers. The bank tested Cisco Hyperflex against a competitive HCI solution using similar configurations. Both HCI offerings were evaluated using criteria that fell into 13 categories, including overall footprint, installation, upgrades, resiliency, performance, and supportability. As part of ESG’s review of the test results, we viewed the scores assigned to each category and saw that Cisco HyperFlex had higher scores in each category than the competitive solution did.

Simplicity of Installation

HCI was designed to simplify the deployment and configuration of compute, networking, and storage resources, as these components are integrated into one system. Organizations can then scale these resources by adding additional nodes as workloads scale in both size and quantity. To support how quickly IT resources can be deployed, it is ideal for the installation to be as simple as possible.
ESG reviewed the bake-off testing results and noted that the bank determined Cisco HyperFlex required less time and effort to install and configure when compared to the competitive solution. As a result, the bank observed that its IT staff reduced administration time and effort.

ESG Review

Based on the bank’s scoring, ESG validated the easier workflow for deploying Cisco HyperFlex and creating clusters. We examined the workflow for creating clusters with Cisco Intersight, as shown in Figure 3. Using a menu-driven process, each step for configuring clusters required the end-user to input select parameters as directed, such as server name or IP addresses.
Figure 3. Menu-driven Workflow for Creating Cisco HyperFlex Cluster with Intersight
ESG also observed that the bank could further simplify this process by either selecting a previously created policy (as shown by the red boxes) or creating policies when inputting new parameters (that can be applied to new clusters).
The bank also observed how easy it was to configure networking resources for the cluster. ESG also verified this ease by examining the process of configuring the Cisco Fabric Interconnects (FIs), as shown in Figure 4. Configuring the FI ports (e.g., for Ethernet or Fibre Channel) was simplified by using Cisco UCS Manager, without having to access a separate element manager. Once the FI hardware was configured, Cisco Intersight automated configuration of the L2 virtual network, such as VLANs required for VMware vMotion, management IP addresses, and MAC address pools for Cisco vNICs. With the policies already included in the HX Installer, Cisco Intersight could also automatically apply them to the cluster and assign server profiles.
When it came to configuring storage, the bank cited that the process was simpler. With the competitive solution, the bank needed to create VMware vSANs, along with related components such as VMDKs and disk groups. Cisco HyperFlex does not require these constructs to present storage to the supported applications and workloads. With Cisco HyperFlex, workloads on the cluster can access all available storage due to the distributed file system and pooled storage. Because organizations do not have to create disk groups with Cisco HyperFlex, overall time and effort spent on configuring clusters is less than that of the competition.
Figure 4. Simplified Network Configuration with Cisco Intersight
While some level of manual interaction occurred, such as configuring the type of traffic-specific FI ports supported, inputting IP addresses of DNS servers, or specifying VMware-related VLANs, Cisco Intersight automated the majority of cluster creation tasks. Thus, Cisco Intersight helped to minimize overall time for installation and configuration, compared to the competition. The faster that Cisco HyperFlex was online, the faster that the application could be up and running to help end-users satisfy business needs without losing money.
ESG also noted that the installation process was simplified due to automated validation checks. We saw this as another way that Cisco Intersight simplified installation by pointing out where exactly errors were present, removing the need to examine and trace all previous steps performed. This would also minimize any unanticipated failures in the field due to overlooked misconfigurations.
Since Cisco Intersight enables organizations to apply previously used policies, creating other clusters with similar configurations can take less time, eliminating the need to input parameters manually again. Applying policies not only reduces time to deployment but also eliminates other configuration errors to be corrected in future deployments. ESG finds that Intersight’s automation can especially help those that have not deployed Cisco HyperFlex in the field.

Why this matters

Fulfilling new IT requirements must be done quickly and successfully so that organizations can run applications without delay. Accomplishing this requires a fast and simplified installation process that minimizes any configuration errors.
After reviewing the bake-off test results, ESG validated the bank’s assertion that Cisco HyperFlex simplifies overall installation. Based on our past validations and research, we verified specifically that Cisco HyperFlex can reduce the amount of time and effort for installing and deploying a multi-node cluster given the fewer steps and the automation support. During cluster configuration, ESG also noted that the time and effort spent on configuring networking and storage resources required fewer manual steps, further decreasing installation time and effort.

Simplicity of Performing Maintenance Upgrades

Installing firmware upgrades is necessary so that the product is operating normally and is in compliance. If firmware is not updated to the appropriate version, organizations may not be able to take advantage of all product features. IT needs to ensure that any new firmware is compatible with the existing environment and does not cause unforeseen errors. Upgrading also incurs downtime, as systems must be taken offline, thus disrupting service.
With Cisco HyperFlex, the bank found it easier to upgrade firmware while minimizing the amount of manual work and tracking of new releases, without disrupting application uptime.

ESG Review

During its bake-off testing, the bank scored both Cisco HyperFlex and the competitive solution equally in the majority of criteria associate with its “Upgrades” evaluation. However, the bank found that the upgrade process for Cisco HyperFlex involved fewer steps and was easier to follow, ultimately leading the bank to assign a higher overall score.
To validate this feedback, ESG explored the upgrade workflow utilized by Cisco Intersight. We examined the full stack upgrade process for Cisco HyperFlex, which provides the opportunity to upgrade the cluster, server, and VMware ESXi firmware either simultaneously or individually as needs dictate (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Performing Full Stack Firmware Upgrade
Working with the “gamora” cluster, we simply right-clicked on the line items corresponding to the nodes in the cluster and selected Upgrade. (Since the cluster supported VMware ESXi hosts, we needed to ensure that vSphere Distributed Resource Cluster (DRS) was enabled and “Fully Automated Mode” was selected so that VMs were migrated off the nodes before the firmware upgrade occurred.) We were taken to the Version Selection screen to choose the firmware versions for upgrading the Hyperflex Data Platform, cluster nodes, and VMware ESXi as needed (see Figure 6). We observed that the drop-down menus for each field only listed the latest firmware versions available for upgrade. If, for any reason, a firmware version was not listed, we could manually input another version number as long as Cisco deemed the version to be valid. Once version numbers were entered, Cisco Intersight automatically conducted validations to ensure that firmware upgrades could proceed.
Figure 6. Initiating Firmware Upgrades of Cisco HyperFlex Components
In reviewing this workflow, ESG saw why the bank scored Cisco HyperFlex higher in the Upgrades category. The upgrade process required minimal manual intervention. Cisco Intersight automatically tracked the firmware that should be upgraded to specific versions while ensuring compatibility. ESG noted how validation checks were automated so that Cisco Intersight could proceed with upgrades, reboot systems, and complete health checks to verify that the upgrades were successful. We also saw upgrading the data platform, compute nodes, and the hypervisor could be conducted in parallel, removing the need to upgrade each component separately and verify that firmware versions are compatible.
Most importantly, ESG should emphasize that upgrades could occur without incurring application downtime.

Why this matters

Tracking when to upgrade firmware is tedious. Organizations need to ensure that upgrades are available by the vendor and that upgrades of disparate components are compatible, or products may not operate as expected. Many organizations still rely on manual methods to track and validate the proper upgrades to perform. Moreover, maintenance windows for these upgrades normally need to be scheduled, which can incur application downtime unnecessarily.
ESG validated that Cisco Intersight provides the automation to speed up and simplify upgrades on Cisco HyperFlex. Using the bank’s observations, ESG investigated the upgrade process and found that Cisco Intersight supports upgrades without incurring unnecessary downtime. Not only does Cisco Intersight help to ensure that the correct firmware upgrades are available and allowed, but it also enables multiple upgrades to occur simultaneously by checking if the firmware versions are compatible.

Product Resiliency

Organizations expect products to be resilient in light of any potential issue that can disrupt service. Based on bake-off test results and experience, the bank ranked Cisco HyperFlex higher in resiliency over the competitive solution.

ESG Review

During its evaluation, the bank specifically cited how well Cisco HyperFlex recovered from cache disk failures more effectively without service disruption. ESG attributes the resiliency to Cisco HyperFlex’s distributed data platform architecture. Since writes go to local SSD or NVMe cache and are replicated to remote SSDs in parallel, any cache disk failures are covered, as data can be retrieved from those remote SSDs. We also noted that organizations can leverage policy-based data replication across the cluster to further increase resiliency and availability.
The data platform architecture also enables cache disk failures to be replaced without incident, unlike the bank’s experience with the competitive solution. As mentioned previously, the competitive solution relies on disk groups and VMDKs to divide the available storage amongst the supported workloads. When a cache disk failure occurred, the bank realized that an entire disk group went offline and lost all access to that capacity. An end-user had to manually rebuild the disk group before the competitive solution accepted a replacement drive. On the other hand, Cisco HyperFlex automatically acknowledged the failure and generated an alert for the bank.
Of course, ESG would expect that any failure would impact overall performance. Yet, the bank observed that the impact on Cisco HyperFlex was less than that on the competitive solution. While the disk group went offline on the competitive solution, Cisco HyperFlex automatically rebuilt the data within minutes as data was automatically rebalanced, minimizing the overall performance hit.

Why this matters

Resiliency of IT infrastructure is especially critical for financial institutions, as any downtime caused by failures translates directly into lost money. The bigger the risk of service disruption, the more costly it is to the business.
ESG found that the bank’s conclusion about the resiliency of Cisco HyperFlex was valid, specifically when access to data was affected. In the case of cache disk failures, our past reviews of Cisco HyperFlex revealed that the data platform can recover with little performance impact. More importantly, little manual intervention is required for Cisco HyperFlex to recover from such failures, as the bank observed during its bake-off testing.

Quality of Post-sales Support

Should organizations need help to resolve product issues when deployed in production networks, they expect vendors to respond and resolve those issues quickly. Both ongoing technical support and professional services are key in helping customers resolve problems found during production.
Based on the bake-off test results, the bank found that Cisco Technical Assistance Center (TAC) and Proactive Services offered a better level of service than that of the competition.

ESG Review

When contacting Cisco for issues encountered with Cisco HyperFlex, the bank specifically noted that the first-line Cisco TAC engineers could deal with a wide variety of issues once received. On the other hand, the bank noted that similar issues found with the competitive solution had to be escalated by first-line support.
The bank also pointed out the value of using Cisco’s proactive services. As shown in Figure 7, for any alarm that Cisco Intersight raised with HyperFlex clusters, the bank could automatically generate a TAC case and send it to a designated member of the Cisco account team. Intersight would collect data about the alarm, eliminating the need for the bank to collect logs. Instead, diagnostics would be performed automatically. Should the resolution involve a return material authorization (RMA), the bank would receive instructions on how to procced.
Figure 7. Generating Cisco TAC Case via Intersight
ESG noted that they process for submitting a “trouble ticket,” coupled with the remote diagnostics that Cisco performs, can improve the level of post-sales support provided by a vendor. Reporting any issue to a customer support team, regardless of criticality, deserves the right amount of attention so that potential problems are contained in the production network. Regardless of SLAs in place, a customer wants reassurance that the customer support team is working on a resolution, without having to do extra homework. With the simplified process of submitting a TAC case, the automated diagnosis, and the communication of possible resolutions via multiple channels, ESG could see that overall resolution time decreased, helping to increase overall application uptime.

Why this matters

No matter how resilient an IT product can be, problems are bound to occur as it operates in production networks. Having quality post-sales support goes a long way in helping organizations resolve service-affecting issues efficiently.
Based on the bank’s feedback, Cisco’s post-sales support, supplemented by the automated capabilities of Cisco Intersight, proved to be better than that of the competition. For any issues encountered with Cisco HyperFlex, the bank perceived Cisco’s TAC to provide a higher lever of service. ESG also sees how Cisco increased the quality of its post-sales support with the automation built into Cisco Intersight for submitting “trouble tickets.”

The Bigger Truth

Supporting applications and workloads in global financial institutions is of utmost importance, as any application downtime translates directly into lost money ranging from thousands to tens of thousands. As this vertical continues its adoption of HCI, choosing between different vendor offerings does involve considering factors such as overall architecture and feature sets. However, equally important is how easy the HCI solution is to operate, from deployment and configuration to ongoing management and administration so that applications can be spun up and maintained quickly and efficiently. Maximizing application uptime results in minimal financial penalty.
ESG reviewed results of bake-off testing conducted by a global financial institution between Cisco HyperFlex and a competitive HCI solution. While the bank ranked Cisco HyperFlex over the competitive solution, Cisco HyperFlex excelled in evaluation categories related to workflows associated with installation, upgrades, and resolution of service-affecting issues with post-sales support. ESG confirmed the validity of these results by leveraging our past validations with Cisco HyperFlex as well as our knowledge and expertise with IT operations. We found that the architecture of Cisco HyperFlex, coupled with using Cisco Intersight for daily operations and management, simplifies workflows by leveraging automation while minimizing hands-on interaction with the hardware. Decreasing the number of operational tasks conducted manually only maximizes application uptime.
ESG believes that the bake-off testing results show the ease and simplicity of working with Cisco HyperFlex, which can benefit any organization that is looking to streamline IT operations without sacrificing application availability. In conducting our own evaluation, ESG can verify the bank’s findings to be sound. Those evaluating HCI solutions should seriously consider Cisco HyperFlex with Intersight.

This ESG Technical Validation was commissioned by Cisco Systems, Inc. and is distributed under license from TechTarget, Inc.

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