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VMware EVO:RAIL attracts lots of tire kickers, few drivers

VMware users are showing interest in EVO:RAIL, but competitive offerings and more complex decision making slows the purchasing process down.

While VMware's EVO:RAIL received a favorable reception when it debuted last August, most IT pros are still kicking the tires on the hyper-converged infrastructure offering and remain focused on existing server hardware strategies.

VMware jumped into the market hoping to take advantage of the growing interest in hyper-converged technologies. But the top providers in this space -- Nutanix, SimpliVity and Scale Computing -- have a healthy lead through their early commitment to the technology.

In a recent report market researcher IDC credits Nutanix as the prime mover to establish the technology's growing acceptance. The report said Nutanix has captured a 52% share of revenues in the market for the first half of 2014, noting the company also grabbed considerable mindshare.

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Besides the game of catch-up, VMware has many other hurdles to jump to gain more rapid acceptance of EVO:RAIL. For instance, while VMware signed up a solid mix of nine large and small hardware partners to distribute the appliance, including Dell and HP, those same partners also sell their own designs and others.

"Some bigger partners who have traditionally moved a lot of VMware now have competitive offerings," said Camberley Bates, managing director at Evaluator Group based in Boulder, Colo. "So if HP, for instance, has its own software running on its hardware, then that may have better margins and there may be different profit margins on their stuff for channel partners."

Since EVO:RAIL is primarily aimed at small-and medium-size companies, it is sold exclusively through channel partners, who themselves must take the time to evaluate whether the product is a good fit for their business.

"EVO:RAIL is strictly a channel play and it takes the channel a while to get their arms around something new and what they want to do with it," Bates said.

Another factor working against VMware's EVO:RAIL and other newer hyper-converged infrastructure systems is that users who have bought new servers over the past year or two won't have budgets in place for a new raft of servers -- converged or traditional -- for at least another year.

"We made the decision to stay with traditional department-level servers when we refreshed our [installed] base in 2013," said one IT professional with a large manufacturing company in St. Paul, Minn. "It's hard to support more than one server architecture at a time, particularly a converged architecture. It forces us to shift basic responsibilities among too many specialists."

VMware believes it is still early days for the hyper-converged infrastructure market with much of the financial opportunity still ahead. One company executive sees the technology's acceptance tracking the same way virtualization did 10 years ago.

"Users are looking for a different delivery consumption model, something analogous to a smart phone, and this appliance model is new," said Mornay Van Der Walt, vice president of VMware's EVO:RAIL Group. "Like virtualization back in 2003 to 2005 --it wasn't adopted mainstream, for some it was a like a science experiment. You will see the same with hyper-convergence."

Van Der Walt admits it is difficult to convince IT shops that have just refreshed their server hardware base to invest further in a hyper-converged offering, and that much of the early success of EVO:RAIL is tied to timetables.

"A user who has completed refresh of their servers has to depreciate those off the books, so some of this is tied to timing," Van Der Walt said. "But for people building new regional data centers and have to buy new hardware, this can be a good solution."

While EVO:RAIL looks like it will endure a long evaluation cycle, one analyst thinks VMware has successfully got the message out that it is a serious player in the hyper-converged infrastructure market.

"People interested in hyper-converged infrastructure are aware of [EVO:RAIL] and are evaluating it alongside Nutanix, so VMware's put a stake in the ground," said Rich Fichera, vice president, principal analyst focused on infrastructure with Forrester Research, Inc.

Still, some larger enterprises balk at EVO:RAIL and other competitive offerings because these systems involve a more complex decision making process. Often large companies have many more IT people dedicated to supporting servers, software, storage and networking gear separately, and bringing in a raft of hyper converged systems introduces the problem of reassigning, retraining or laying off staff.

"Larger companies have clear separation among their server, networking and storage people, so they are affected much more in terms of reassigning roles when big converged systems come in," Bates said. "But in smaller shops it eases their responsibilities because they don't have to know as deeply how to manage everything."

VMware, meanwhile, is expected to deliver a second hyper-converged system, EVO:Rack, during the first half of this year, though VMware representatives have not confirmed a release date. It will include the vCloud Suite, VSAN, NSX and EVO:RACK management software.

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