When it comes to composable infrastructure, “HPE Synergy is the 800-pound gorilla,” said Liqid CEO and co-founder Sumit Puri. But, he added, “we’re gonna take over the world. The only question we have is: is it one year? Two years? Three years before we take over the world?”
HPE Synergy is Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s composable infrastructure product, and the company deserves credit for making the term “composable infrastructure” mainstream — at least among software-defined data center nerds. Synergy started shipping two years ago, and during the company’s most recent earnings call last month, HPE CEO Antonio Neri said it’s now a $1 billion run rate business.
Other legacy infrastructure vendors including Dell EMC, Cisco, Juniper Networks, and NetApp, as well as younger companies like Nutanix and DriveScale are also developing or already selling composable products.
Liqid is a 6-year-old composable infrastructure startup that rolled out its product in early 2018. It’s raised about $30 million to date and has “dozens” of paying customers including telecommunications provider Orange that use its technology for cloud, edge computing, artificial intelligence (AI), and high-performance compute (HCP), according to Puri.
SDxCentral caught up with Puri on the expo floor at the Open Compute Project (OCP) Global Summit. During the interview he discussed the differences between Liqid’s and HPE’s technology and how composable infrastructure is a perfect fit for edge data centers. The startup is also working on new software features including the ability to containerize hardware, which Puri says will launch this year.
“What we mean by composable is a new way of building servers in the data center,” Puri said. “We don’t plug stuff into the motherboard. It’s about trays of resources.”
These trays of resources include graphics processing units (GPUs) and CPUs, NVMe storage, networking, field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), and Intel Optane memory. Liqid’s technology allows customers to disaggregate, pool, orchestrate, and repurpose these physical resources across peripheral component interconnect express (PCIe) fabric on demand and on bare metal. Management software allows users to add disaggregated elements as needed.
“You are defining it in software and it’s dynamic,” Puri said. “So when you need another GPU, you don’t send the guy with the cart to power down the server. You just reprogram the fabric and add devices as you do.”
The startup built a switch that uses Broadcom silicon, and the software lives inside that switch. It doesn’t make any other hardware, such as servers or storage devices. For those, it partners with companies including Dell EMC and Inspur. “We take the boxes that they build, interconnect them with our switch, and turn the boxes from static to dynamic,” Puri said. “Our core IP is the switch and the orchestration software — that’s where our value really lies.”
PCIe is an interface standard for connecting hardware devices at very high speed and low latency. “My protocol up and down the rack is PCIe,” said Puri, adding that it’s a key differentiator between Liqid and HPE.
Versus HPE Synergy
“We’re bare metal, they’re virtualized,” he said. “We’re disaggregated, they’re converged. We’re PCIe, they’re Ethernet. I am an open ecosystem, meaning I can play with Dell, I can play with HPE, I can play with whomever. They are a closed ecosystem. So we welcome them, and that they are making noise in the market and educating everybody on this term composability. But we think composability without bare metal is just hyperconvergence.”
To be fair, HPE claims to support applications using bare metal instances via its Composer tool, in addition to virtualized or container environments. It also supports third-party hardware and software partners by abstracting hardware into code, which can then be composed via the HPE OneView API, said John Carter, director of HPE Synergy product management, in an email.
“Synergy offers Ethernet, SAS, and Fibre Channel fabrics, giving customers their choice of fabrics to integrate with their existing data center environments,” he added. “Liqid is a software layer and a PCIe fabric, which limits customer choice and does not coexist with a customer’s traditional data center environment. It may be optimized for certain kinds of workloads but is very rigid. HPE Synergy allows customers to use their existing tool chains plugged into an open API. If they want to use an existing SAN, SAS connected drives, or any number of third-party solutions, Synergy supports it.”
Carter also pointed to HPE’s first-mover status. “HPE pioneered and launched composable infrastructure in the market in 2017,” he said. “Since then, HPE Synergy is the industry’s only established 100 percent software-defined, composable infrastructure platform, delivering speed, efficiency, and a broad portfolio of integrated partner tools.”
Composable for AI, Edge
AI is a big use case for Liqid and that’s why its partnership with server vendor Inspur is important. The companies late last year announced a joint composable infrastructure platform for AI and GPU-intensive applications that enables one composable platform to scale and pool physical resources across multi-rack deployments.
Composable infrastructure makes sense for these data-heavy workloads because “data has gravity,” Puri said. “So why move petabytes of data around? That’s stupid. Leave the data alone and bring in the appropriate CPU, GPU, FPGA, networking resources to the data.”
Cloud is another big use case for customers building a private cloud as well as Tier 2 cloud service providers, he added. “The agile infrastructure, the dynamic infrastructure is a big help.”
And while it’s not to the level of AI or cloud, edge computing — and the extremely high-bandwidth, low-latency applications that it will enable — looks to be the next big use case for composable infrastructure, Puri said. “5G edge is going to be extremely disruptive because the next data center it not going to be a big concrete box in Arizona. The next data center is going to be a small metal box at the base of the antenna — that’s where the first level of processing has to happen,” he said.
Composable improves physical resource utilization, which enables a smaller infrastructure footprint that uses less power and cooling. Plus, Liqid’s technology is disaggregated and can scale and be reprogrammed remotely. So it also ticks off these key edge requirements.
Will It Take Over the World?
“I like what Liqid is doing in the composable space,” said Matt Kimball, a Moor Insights and Strategy analyst. It’s not better or worse than HPE’s offering, it’s just different as Liqid takes a more software-only approach versus HPE’s with hardware plus software product, he added in an emailed response to questions.
“There are good things about this [Liqid] model – and some question marks,” Kimball said. “The ‘work with all’ approach is good in that it allows organizations to better leverage hardware investments they’ve made and doesn’t force vendor lock-in, as Liqid points out. But it can also prevent deeper levels of integration between hardware and software, which can make provisioning and management not as efficient (or complete). But these tradeoffs will vary from hardware platform to hardware platform. And enterprise IT organizations will ultimately be the judge over what deployment model best fits their needs.”
Kimball drew a parallel between Liqid’s approach to composable and Nutanix’s recent approach to hyperconverged infrastructure in which it’s moving away from a packaged appliance to subscription-based software. “But, Nutanix moved to a software model after establishing itself as a leader in the space, with a significant customer base,” Kimball added.
“Liqid has very good technology,” he said. “It has strong leadership. It can play the disruptor role in the composable space. But it has to navigate a market where HPE, Dell, and Cisco (among others) have established a strong presence.”