If you’re up for analyzing the competitive landscape and converged infrastructure architectures of the many converged infrastructure and HCI vendors, this market offers the world’s fair. It’s a heated market with lots of growth and many companies pursuing the customer demand.
Organizations have plenty of options as they look to trial and deploy converged solution, which include products marketed by the world’s largest IT players. Many of the different vendors have subtle differences in their approaches, with the technology architecture deriving from their original heritage and technology resources (software, hardware, storage and management). In the end, what customers are looking for are technology partners that can deliver a converged data center infrastructure in a more cost-effective package than it would take to integrate the technology themselves.
Within converged infrastructures, there are differences in architectural solutions. For example, in storage, SAN vs NAS battles still play out and difference in approaches between FCoE (fiber channel over Ethernet), iSCSI, FCoIP create different operational siloes. Some vendors preset the amount of storage and compute available, while others allow customization of resource allocation. Organizations should look closely at a solution’s capabilities to determine which are best for their use cases and overall environment.
With the merger of Dell and EMC driving much of the dynamics in this market, 2016 will prove to be a crucial year.
A Look at Market Leaders and Partnerships
Below, we summarize the strategies of the largest positions, but first, it might be worth looking at which organizations are perceived as leaders, according to our survey.
When asked in the SDxCentral Converged Infrastructure Survey, ‘Which vendors of converged infrastructure would or did you consider for your converged data center projects (check all that apply),’ Cisco (68%) and VMware (58%) were the clear leaders. EMC (25%), IBM (24%), and HPE (23%) were the only other vendors that were cited by more than a fifth of the participants.
However, when it comes to deployments in production networks, 48% of survey respondents said they still hadn’t selected a solution. Of those that had, 32% deployed Cisco, 22% VMware, 10% IBM, 9% EMC, and 7% chose Dell and Ericsson. The scale of those deployments tends to be between 100-2000 nodes (36%), with only 6% running deployments with more than 10K nodes.
A quick look at some of the market leaders finds that many of them have a long history in this market. They may have found themselves in the converged data center infrastructure space out of necessity, looking to extend and enhance their offerings to meet emerging data center requirements and customer demands.
Market Leaders: Converged and HCI Strategy
Cisco was early in spotting the converged opportunity. Its Unified Computing System (UCS) has been in the market since 2009. It uses Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), which enables storage and IP protocols to run on a single cable transport and interface, to converge the traffic. With no native storage solutions, Cisco relies on external partners, such as Hitachi, IBM and Nimble Storage to fill out the architecture. The UCS Manager is the centralized control point for the converged resources, abstracting all the information from the UCS B-Series blades and/or C-Series rack-mountable systems that are deployed.
Cisco was originally an active partner in the VCE coalition, but that is expected to diminish now that VCE has been acquired by EMC/Dell. Cisco has worked to build out a robust ecosystem that can expand the capabilities of UCS. In addition to the aforementioned storage vendors, Cisco has built traction with integrations with NetApp and the FlexPod architecture. Cisco has started partnering with other HCI vendors, such as StorMagic, ScaleIO, Maxta, SiimpliVity and provides integration with VMware Virtual SAN (vSAN) to provide a HCI solution hosted on UCS rack-optimized systems.
Cisco is one of the leaders converged infrastructure deployments and has put together a smart and balanced strategy for all the components. The only recurring concern is on storage resources, for which Cisco has relied heavily on its partnership with NetApp. This is a close area to watch to see if Cisco makes an acquisition – perhaps NetApp or a storage-defined software startup.
As this report was going to press, Cisco announced its new HyperFlex line of servers on March 1. Cisco says that HyperFlex, which includes management software from partner SpringPath, moves further towards hyper convergence by integrating storage and data services features into an already robust compute and networking platform.
Dell – where to start? The company is in the process of subsuming EMC (including VMware) for one of the largest technology mergers in history. Therefore, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single Dell converged and hyper converged strategy because that would include all of the EMC, VMware, and VCE elements (all included in separate descriptions).
With its background in both servers and networking, Dell is a natural fit for having a converged infrastructure story. The current linchpin of its strategy – in addition to the merger with EMC — is a partnership with Nutanix to combine Nutanix software on Dell servers. This is an approach that makes sense, bringing Dell’s support, hardware and brand and combining with Nutanix’ software. This is similar to the concept of a “brite box” — or branded white box— in which an open, SDx approach to COTs hardware is augmented with the support and services of a major IT player.
Looking forward, it will be interesting to see what the Dell/EMC merger means for the partnership with Nutanix. Dell has a deep and wide portfolio of converged assets, but how it sorts out the series of combinations will be interesting to watch in 2016.
EMC is a giant in the storage industry and it owns VMware, so it has all of the components of converged infrastructure and HCI. To confuse things, it also owns VCE and is being merged with Dell along with VMware — creating a giant company with massive convergence potential for networking, virtualization software, and hardware components.
EMC leans heavily on VMware software for creating converged and HCI solutions, including its VSPEX Blue product, which uses VMware’s VSAN. Look for a continued development and integration of EMC storage resources, Dell hardware and services, and VMware virtualization products.
HPE built a converged infrastructure portfolio by assembling many different pieces of its portfolio, including storage from its 3Par SAN division, HP blade servers, HP networking gear, and its OpenView management software. The company has been active in this space and there have also been rumors that it would be looking to acquire a startup such as SimpliVity to augment its hyper convergence story.
IBM has a strong position in virtualized storage, with Spectrum Accelerate software and its own storage appliances. It has been using a position in storage for the HCI market, though it’s been a bit low on visibility compared with the stories of Cisco, EMC (with VWware), and startups such as Nutanix and SimpliVity. Spectrum Accelerate is used on IBM’s cloud service, SoftLayer, to virtualize storage. IBM’s sale of its server business to Lenovo weakened its position in HCI, and it is primarily relying on partnership with Cisco on UCS to deliver full solutions.
VCE was a leader in developing the converged infrastructure vision. The company was formed in 2009 as a partnership between Cisco, VMware, and EMC. The idea was to create a virtualized infrastructure that combines Cisco UCS servers, Cisco Nexus networking components, VMware software, and EMC storage systems. In 2015, VCE announced a new VxBlock converged infrastructure systems which includes VMware’s NSXsoftware-defined networking technology for the first time. It was initially only supported by Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI).
Questions remain about the VCE partnership, however, because VMware and EMC are being merged with Dell, which has its own converged infrastructure products and competes with Cisco in networking. Cisco has backed off from VCE, selling most of its stake to EMC/VMware in 2015, even though Cisco said last October that it still “pledges support” to VCE. It’s hard to see why Cisco would continue to support the effort once VMware, EMC and VCE are all owned by rival Dell. This all raises many question posed by the gigantic Dell/EMC merger, one of which is: With so many HCI products under the Dell umbrella, where will it consolidate its brand? In press reports, some resellers say it makes sense that VMware software will be combined with Dell hardware for HCI, replacing Cisco hardware.
VMware is driving its hyper converged strategy by combining elements of vSphere virtualization platform and its Virtual SAN (VSAN) product. This includes marketing the software as part of integrated hardware appliances, including VMware’s recent VMware VxRail appliance which serves as an upgrade path from EVO:RAIL (VMware) / VSPEX Blue (EMC). VxRail is a fully integrated, preconfigured and tested HCI appliance powered by VMware’s Hyper-Converged Software.
The company says it makes these products available through “a broad and deep range of consumption options,” which means internal combinations as well as partnerships. VMware recently revealed that in Q4 of 2015, total VSAN bookings grew nearly 200% year over year, and customer count has increased to over 3000 versus over 1000 a year ago. The company says it is now has more than $100 million annual run rate for total bookings.
VMware partners with many different hardware partners, including its majority-owned subsidiary, VCE, with EMC. When EVO:RAIL was first announced in 2014, partners included Dell, EMC, Inspur, NetOne, Fujitsu and SuperMicro. Hewlett-Packard and Hitachi Data Systems were later added to the list. Last year, VMware also released a product more targeted at the HCI market, called EVO:SDDC, which adds network control. Given the recent large announcements and transactions – including VxRail, Dell’s purchase of EMC (which owns a majority of VMware) and the announcement that VMware would buy a majority of VCE, these partnerships are shifting rapidly. Once absorbed by Dell, we would expect that the HCI appliances will be marketed with Dell’s hardware using VMware software and EMC’s storage solutions.
Notable Converged and HCI Challengers & Startups
Emerging vendors challenging the more established vendors were leaders in the HCI market, building purpose-built software-and-appliance combinations that could be plugged in and used to scale data center quickly. They are making quite a bit of noise in the market. The two most prominent HCI startups include Nutanix and SimpliVity.
Atlantis Computing provides storage virtualization software, which it calls USX, to be loaded onto servers to create an HCI product. USX can pool network attached storage (NAS), SAN, or flash resources. OEM partners including IBM and Lenovo.
Originally a pure SDS play, Atlantis has seen the opportunity in HCI (or maybe its investors did) and In 2015 it launched its own HCI appliance, called HyperScale. The company recently stated that bookings grew 80% year-over-year in 2015.
Juniper Networks, Inc.
Juniper is pursuing a “converged stack” strategy that can draw from its Contrail, MetaFabric Architecture, QFX, Contrail and SRX technology lines to create converged infrastructure solutions targeted at specific applications such as networking and security. One example is its vSRX virtual firewall, which can be deployed as a converged security solution on COTS hardware in cloud environments. Contrail is the primary control platform, which can automate and orchestrate compute, storage, and networking resources on an open, converged COTS hardware platform. Juniper is also partnering with Nutanix to deliver a converged solution that combines Nutanix’ compute & storage platform with Juniper’s Virtual Chassis Fabric and firewall offerings.
Nutanix has been gathering momentum with its converged infrastructure offering, which it calls the Xtreme Computing Platform, targeted at webscale architectures by integrating server and storage resources into a turnkey appliances. Its appliances are run by this Acropolis virtualization software, which controls compute and storage. It is often cited as a leader in the space, including mention on the vaunted upper-right of Gartner’s Magic Quadrant.
Nutanix focuses on scalability and speed of deployment, saying its products can be deployed in just 30 to 60 minutes and run applications at any scale. All of its products run on standard, x86 COTS servers. Nutanix recently filed for an IPO and its OEM partners including Brocade, Dell, and Lenovo. In its IPO filing in December of 2015, Nutanix revealed revenues of $241 million for the year ended July 2015 up from $127 million the previous year and way up from $6.6 million in fiscal 2012. But it was also losing money – to the tune of $126 million for the fiscal year ending last July and a total accumulated deficit of $312 million since being founded in 2009.
Pivot3 recently acquired NexGen Storage, a privately held leading provider of hybrid storage appliances and dynamic all-flash arrays. Pivot3 provides software and hardware solutions in the form of its vSTAC OS software (which leverages VMware vSphere® 6.0) and its All-Flash Enterprise HCI appliances which are hyper-converged data center nodes with converged compute and all-flash storage. Its Global HCI solutions allow sharing of resources across nodes. And as a result of the acquisition, Pivot3 has folded NexGen Storage’s into its current offering, leveraging unique QoS (quality of service) capabilities to improve application performance.
Scale Computing markets the HC3 and HC3x hyper converged platforms, competing with both Nutanix and SimpliVity in the startup world. It is looking to differentiate its offering by focusing on the open sourceKVM hypervisor, which simplifies and potentially reduces costs on hypervisor licensing, which is a major gripe among those buying solutions from the big-name vendors.
SimpliVity also provides a HCI solution, combining storage, compute, and applications such as WAN optimization on COTs hardware. The company has been touting their advantages over public cloud offerings, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), citing a report by Evaluator Group that found SimpliVity’s HyperConverged Infrastructure offers a 22% to 49% savings over AWS. It markets its own OmniCube family of appliances as well as packaging its OmniStack software with hardware partners such as Cisco and Lenovo.
HCI Networking Solutions – White Box Switches and More
Most HCI solutions today focus on preconfigured compute nodes, or on combining compute and storage, utilizing software to create a storage system from compute nodes coupled with flash arrays or spinning disks. As HCI architectures develop, we expect to see more investments in R&D on the networking front. Regardless, leading data centers (such as those from Google, Facebook and other web giants) recognize the need to increase connectivity between the various nodes today and have turned to white boxes coupled with intelligence to accelerate the process.
Entrants in HCI networking solutions include networking functions built into HCI infrastructure solutions from Cisco (UCS + Nexus), EMC/VMware (vCenter + vSphere + vSAN + NSX) and other infrastructure vendors. We also view white box and network virtualization vendors such as Pluribus and Big Switch Networks as significant players in converged data centers, providing flexible connectivity options between converged hardware nodes.
Big Switch Networks
Big Switch Networks develops and sells network virtualization solutions for data centers. Their Big Cloud Fabric is used in hyperscale data centers, providing converged infrastructure with a unified networking fabric across physical and virtual networks through the use of whitebox and britebox switches. It has been a strong partner with Dell, which is using Big Switch software on server hardware to build converged solutions. Other partners on the hardware side include Accton
Pluribus Networks provides a Virtualization-Centric Fabric architecture that works as a strong foundation for converged data centers. Pluribus VCF provides increased visibility into the application traffic flows in these converged data centers, allow for improved application optimization and troubleshooting. Pluribus has built converged solution using its own hardware platform as well as integrating its software with partners to develop hardware solutions. Key partners include Dell, Nutanix, and Supermicro.