Vblock vs. FlexPod: What's the difference?

VMware and Cisco now have two pre-designed IT stacks on the market, one with EMC and one with NetApp. Is there a big difference between them? And what's still missing from both?

In the past month, VMware Inc.'s two biggest storage partners -- EMC and NetApp -- have been making waves as they develop competing pre-integrated infrastructure stacks to support virtualization. Neither product has flown off the shelves yet, but Vblock and FlexPod have already acquired contrasting reputations and sparked debate in the market.

At a high level, both Vblock and FlexPod are IT stacks that begin with a certified baseline configuration, part of a recent trend of IT vendors attempting to simplify the deployment of physical infrastructure components -- the better to free up IT staff to focus on application delivery.

The most obvious difference between the two stacks is at the storage layer. Both rely on the VMware hypervisor and Cisco switches and UCS blades, but Vblock uses EMC Corp. storage and is distributed by a joint venture of the three vendors, known as the Virtual Computing Environment coalition. FlexPod, meanwhile, uses NetApp storage and is distributed through existing channels.

There are also some software differences. Vblock includes Unified Infrastructure Manager, based on the Ionix IP shared between EMC and VMware, for single pane of glass management on the whole Vblock. But FlexPod depends on API integration with existing data center orchestration tools for a unified view of the stack. However, FlexPod includes a NetApp multitenancy feature called MultiStore in its base configuration, which allows for the creation of multiple virtual storage arrays -- a feature not matched by Vblock.

Vblock has been shipping since early this year, but the FlexPod brand is relatively new. Its name didn't appear until about nine months ago, and guidelines for the FlexPod certified baseline architecture have only officially been available to channel partners for about a month. But it's not NetApp's first stab at collaboration and pre-integration with VMware and Cisco; MultiStore was also included in a previous reference architecture for secure multitenancy.

NetApp's David vs. EMC's monolith

Vblock is generally seen as a more rigid, but truly turnkey model, usually requiring the purchase of another whole unit when additional storage, network or compute capacity is needed. Naturally, NetApp is trying to make hay with the "too static" knock on Vblock.

On the flip side, however, some people view FlexPod as more of a loosey-goosey set of guidelines than the more tangible, if monolithic, Vblock. "Is FlexPod really a different model from what we already have today?" asked Stu Miniman, an analyst with Wikibon.org. "NetApp is working with partners that are still providing servers and storage. What has changed?" The value of pre-integration à la Vblock, Miniman argued, is that it creates a new consumable unit of infrastructure, beyond a reference architecture.

Despite the contrasting reputations of Vblock and FlexPod, however, both storage vendors have been rethinking their marketing strategies in the last year, and those strategies have actually grown more similar.

For example, Patrick Rogers, the VP of solutions and alliances for NetApp, admits that in the past NetApp has been a bit too hands-off with channel partners about what to sell. "We realized we needed to be more prescriptive," Rogers said. "We were looking to enable channel partners, but what we had was each channel partner starting to define their own configurations and putting different names on them."

FlexPod still remains more of a reference architecture assembled by channel partners than a stack pre-assembled as a unit at the factory, but the architecture is now more standardized and detailed, Rogers said, with a minimum set of requirements for certification.

Despite its rigid reputation, there is at least some flexibility to Vblock. The stack offers a minimum and a maximum configuration for each model, although customers still must specify the configuration at the time of purchase for certification.

According to Tony Berg, a senior solution architect at World Wide Technology Inc. (WWT), a Vblock and FlexPod channel partner, unused UCS server capacity can be moved to a new Vblock, provided an entire chassis is moved rather than individual blades. Users also have the option of swapping out disk drives within the Vblock's storage array if incremental performance or capacity boosts are needed.

But trying to pack more components into the same Vblock rather than adding a new unit could be counterproductive, Berg said. "There are only so many IOPS that you can hit a storage array with; there are diminishing returns [with trying to add or swap out single components] sometimes."

NetApp's filers also have capacity limits at the top of the 6000 line -- meaning that if one FlexPod containing an FAS6000 array doesn't offer enough storage processing power, another separate FlexPod unit might be needed anyway, according to Berg.

'True scale-out' could neutralize debate, spur sales

Over the last year, the stack vendors have largely overcome the initial mistrust among users about whether buying a pre-integrated stack would lock them in not just with one vendor, but an entire architecture.

Those sentiments are shifting as virtualization and cloud computing take hold. "You can't let the idea of vendor lock-in prevent you from purchasing the best possible solution," said Jesse Pryor, a systems administration manager for a financial institution, who is investigating a Vblock for an upcoming VDI deployment. "People need to let it go. You always have options. Always."

Enterprise executives "like a certified architecture, and knowing it can handle a certain amount of VDI or ESX users -- it helps them plan," said WWT's Berg. But so far, he said, there aren't any patterns emerging of use cases that drive users toward one stack or the other, or a clear winner between the two among his customers. If there's any determining factor, it's whether users already have a relationship with either EMC or NetApp. "But we are seeing a shift to people asking about FlexPod instead of VMware, Cisco and NetApp," Berg added.

Meanwhile, neither product yet offers a global namespace that can logically pool multiple Vblock or FlexPod units as they're added. That will be the key feature needed to get past the scalability and flexibility debates, said Forrester Research senior analyst Andrew Reichman.

"Scale-out means there's no such thing as a 'refresh' -- you 'soft-fail' older components after adding new ones, as in a clustered storage device," he said. "The goal and the dream" for stacks like Vblock and FlexPod, Reichman said, "is the ability to automatically add a new unit and have it immediately usable through a single management interface."

More on preconfigured stack offerings

Beth Pariseau is a senior news writer for SearchServerVirtualization.com. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com.

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