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Hyper-converged choices pit hypervisor mobility vs. VMware

The latest hyper-converged appliance from VMware and VCE is built around VMware software integration, while Nutanix gives users a way to easily move applications off VMware's hypervisor.

The love-hate relationship that IT pros have with VMware is at the center of two new hyper-converged infrastructure offerings.

A new application mobility fabric leads the list of changes in version 4.6 of Nutanix Inc.'s Xtreme Computing Platform. And VMware has a new hyper-converged appliance, named VxRail, built around VMware software, including vSphere, vCenter Server and Virtual SAN.

VCE and VMware claimed their approach with VxRail and Virtual SAN -- which is tightly coupled, or "natively integrated," to VMware's ESXi hypervisor -- offers users better performance.

Conversely, Nutanix's latest software updates allow users to move applications from a non-Nutanix environment to Nutanix, or move across different hypervisors within Nutanix. It allows users to move applications from VMware's ESXi to Acropolis, Nutanix's hypervisor based on KVM, with one click.

The latest functionality replaces the process to move from one hypervisor to another, which had been a multistep process that could take weeks. The automation process handles failover and mapping, and helps businesses run applications where they want and not where the technology dictates it will be run.

The mobility fabric is recognition by Nutanix that businesses want choice about where their applications run and the flexibility to decide the right place to run a workload at the right time, according to Colm Keegan, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group Inc., in Milford, Mass.

"When you are buying technology, you can't be myopic," he said. "You need to be able to tie-in."

The idea is known as "infrastructure invisibility," and has become similar to data deduplication, WAN optimization and thin provisioning, which all started as standalone products, but later became "table stakes" embedded into products, according to Keegan.

"They are not looking at it as an up-sell, standalone product, but it is instead where the product is moving," he said.

Nutanix's new 4.6 platform is still in technical preview, and the company has talked about the application mobility fabric for a while, including a demonstration at its .NEXT user conference last summer, said out Paul Delory, research director at Gartner.

"I think the question on most customers' minds is whether Acropolis [is] going to be on feature parity to ESXi," he said.

Many hyper-converged products give a choice of hypervisor and some don't use VMware, Delory pointed out.

"Those have traction in the market, so those are things folks are interested in," he said.

Both VMware and Nutanix appear to be positioning themselves as a management platform for the software-defined data center.

"I think Nutanix aspires to compete with VMware on all of those fronts," Delory said.

Lock-in vs. integration

The next VxRail appliance will have greater appeal to enterprises with a significant VMware environment and a long-standing relationship with EMC, Keegan said.

"This plays into the whole VMware management and orchestration environment," Keegan said. "It is plugging into an environment that many businesses already have and where they are comfortable."

Nutanix offers "stiff competition" in the midmarket, but VxRail might appeal to larger enterprises with Vblock in their data center, Keegan said.

"For them, it is a very natural alignment," Keegan said, where VxRail may be used for tier-two workloads or for remote offices.

One user sees VxRail and other hyper-converged offerings as a way to replace PC-based desktops with less expensive tablets and, for more mobile users, smartphones. He said hyper-converged also makes a lot of sense because of the demands placed on compute, network and storage resources when delivering entire desktop environments from remote servers.

"A lot of the growth we expected to see around desktop virtualization may start to perk up again, as better price-performing hyper-converged systems come to market," said one IT professional with a large manufacturing company in Minneapolis. "A hyper-converged approach gives you more of everything you need [to download] whole environments that can run on any device."

Competition from all angles

While Dell has obviously become more aligned with VMware and EMC in the hyper-converged market, it doesn't necessarily mean that Dell will stop competing against the EMC Federation.

"It's not just Nutanix they have to worry about," said Dana Gardner, president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions LLC in Gilford, N.H. "There are a number of hyper-converged players to worry about, including Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Cisco. Dell and VMware are still separate companies, and we don't know how this complex undertaking [the proposed Dell-EMC-VMware merger] is going to turn out."

VxRail also will face increased competition from Microsoft with its Azure Stack when the company delivers that offering later this year. Microsoft also has the same formidable partners VMware has to go to market with Azure Stack, including Dell, Gardner said.

An increasing number of user companies can run larger, more mission-critical workloads than they could with similar offerings a few years ago, according to Gardner.

"Initially, the anticipation was, you would put these systems in a closet in the back or in a remote office," Gardner said. "But now, they think, 'Let's to go to a private cloud,' where they can have a fabric approach to resources, where convergence around networks and storage gives them greater payback and better management simplicity."

VxRail, with a starting price of $60,000, is less expensive than VMware's EVO:RAIL, which was priced between $80,00 and $180,000. EVO:RAIL debuted in 2014, but adoption was slow and VMware has since put more emphasis on selling Virtual SAN-ready nodes and the VxRail appliance.

"EVO:Rail obviously did not perform the way VMware would like it to," Delory said.

I've been saying since Day 1 that hyper-converged is good for certain use cases, but not for others.
Paul Deloryresearch director, Gartner

One of the biggest differences between EVO and VxRail is that the latter is a joint product from VMware and VCE -- both part of the EMC Federation -- as opposed to VMware previously relying on outside hardware partners to price and sell EVO appliances. Since VMware, VCE and EMC worked together to develop the VxRail software and hardware, "that overcomes some of the obstacles EVO:RAIL runs into," Delory said.

VxRail also gives VCE a broader portfolio, putting VCE on similar footing to other major vendors, such as Hewlett Packard Enterprise, which has several converged offerings.

"I've been saying since Day 1 that hyper-converged is good for certain use cases, but not for others," he said. That means VxRail can be sold for the workloads and scale where hyper-converged makes sense, but VCE can turn to Vblock or another product if it isn't best.

Dell and Nutanix have been partners since 2014 through an OEM agreement that Keegan calls "very strong" and could stay in place, even if the Dell-EMC deal is completed.

Dell has wide interest when it comes to partners, and it makes it easy to tell customers it isn't leading them down one path.

"Longer term, that is something they will have to look at and rationalize," Keegan said.

Ed Scannell is a senior executive editor with TechTarget. Contact him at [email protected].

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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