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VMware using VSAN to redefine hyper-convergence, but is it the right move?

VMware unveiled the latest version of its Virtual SAN software this week, and while the release includes welcome improvements, VMware’s marketing message is missing the mark.

Virtual SAN 6.2 adds several upgrades that customers will appreciate, though the addition of in-line deduplication and compression will only be  for all-flash arrays.

The software also comes with a renewed marketing push to label VSAN as the key component of what VMware is now calling its “Hyper-Converged Software (VMware HCS) stack.” That stack also apparently includes vSphere and vCenter Server.

VMware has been pushing the converged angle of its VSAN software for some time, but with this latest push, I think it’s time to cut through some of the hype to reflect on what hyper-convergence actually means.

Even the most basic definition of hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) describes a system which integrates (or converges) both software and hardware components. Today, that’s come to mean appliances from vendors, such as Nutanix and SimpliVity, that combine compute, storage, networking as well as software that may include a hypervisor (which effectively abstracts compute), and a software-defined storage layer that  abstracts the local storage on each node. Many appliances also include backup or resiliency features, performance management tools as well as deduplication and compression.

One of the main draws to this hyper-converged approach is that customers love the simplicity of plugging in an integrated appliance and the ability to simply plug in more to scale. But that’s not VSAN or VMware’s HCS stack. Software bundling is not analogous to hyperconvergence. Yet, VMware still claims to be number one in the hyper-converged market. I don’t have access to any firm numbers, but I’d go so far as to speculate that the vast majority of VSAN installs aren’t delivering HCI  as we understand it today.

It’s easy to forget with all this hype about VSAN that VMware actually has a hyper-converged infrastructure offering—or at least I think they do. And they’re certainly not number one.

VMware released EVO:RAIL to much fanfare at VMworld 2014. It was later met with customer complaints about licensing and adoption lagged. Now, it seems VMware is unwilling to admit defeat in the hyper-converged space and is instead turning its attention to pumping up the converged angle of VSAN, even as rumors swirl that the company plans to phase out or even terminate EVO:RAIL. You may remember that VMware also promised a larger-scale converged offering first called EVO:RACK and then rebranded as EVO:SDDC. Still no word on if that product will see the light of day or whether VMware will leave non-Federation hardware partners out in the cold.

In fact, early next week we’re expecting VCE to introduce VxRail—a hyperconverged appliance that sounds remarkably similar to everything the EMC Federation hoped EVO:RAIL would be.

Details of VxRail have yet to be publicly released, but expect to hear that VCE will take on the role of integrator for the Federation, effectively repackaging VMware’s software stack into easily digestible appliances based on EMC (and who knows, maybe Dell) hardware.

However, unlike the much-hyped introduction of EVO:RAIL, don’t expect to hear much talk from VMware executives about the company’s independence and its ability to offer customers a choice when it comes to hardware platforms.  Instead,  you’ll hear how preferred hardware integrations will save customers money and offer better performance—and all of this at a time when VMware should be recognizing that its ability to lock customers in to its hypervisor is beginning to wane.

If VMware is serious about its software-defined data center vision, then it should keep its focus on providing products that help deemphasize hardware rather than giving preferential treatment to some. On the other hand, if your goal is to generate short-term profit for EMC—which is currently slogging through an acquisition fraught with financial complexities—then VxRail makes perfect sense.