Those of you who have followed me over the years know that I’m not shy when it comes to a good competitive dust-up. I’m OK with the usual puffery and slightly exaggerated claims. All part of the fun.
I’m not OK when I believe the claims are misleading.
One startup is working very hard to convince everyone that they (and they alone) are leading the current trend in HCI — hyperconverged infrastructure. One of their spokespeople even published a thoughtful piece listing the ten reasons why they thought they deserved the “leader” mantle.
While I admire their bravado, I felt the piece did a disservice to both the industry and to customers. I thought it grossly misrepresented both the current and future state of the market.
Perhaps most importantly, there was little talk about what mattered most to customers.
So — while staying positive — I’d like to share my "ten reasons" why I think VMware is leading — and will continue to lead — the hyperconverged marketplace.
If we’re going to have a polite argument, we ought to at least define what we’re discussing.
The first wave was “converged” infrastructure: traditional compute, storage and network products engineered to be consumed and supported as a single block of infrastructure.
The fundamental appeal was a drastically simplified customer experience, which gave IT time and resources to go do other things. VCE Vblocks established the market and validated the model, with several others following suit. As we stand today, converged infrastructure is a successful and proven model that continues to grow.
Meanwhile, a few enterprising startups created a software-based storage layer that eliminated the need for an external storage array, and dubbed themselves “hyperconverged”.
Hence our discussion today ...
#1 — Hyperconverged Is About Software, Not Hardware
Hyperconverged solutions derive their value from the hypervisor being able to support all infrastructure functions in software, and without the need for separate dedicated hardware, such as a storage array or fibre channel switch. All players in this segment would mostly agree with this statement.
If hyperconverged is really about software (and not hardware), what’s the core software technology in just about every hyperconverged product available today?
It's ubiquitous in the data center, which explains why it's ubiquitous in the hyperconverged market. A key part of the story: vSphere implements the most popular infrastructure mgmt APIs in use today.
The harsh market reality is that there’s just not a lot of demand for non-vSphere-based hyperconverged solutions.
IT professionals know vSphere -- it's tried, tested and proven -- and that's what they want.
If we could convince a few industry analysts to focus on hyperconverged software vs. counting largely similar boxes with different vendor labels on them, their picture of the landscape would be quite different.
As far as claims to "market leadership" — without the power and presence of the VMware vSphere platform, there wouldn't be a converged or hyperconverged market to argue about.
#2 — Built-In Is Better Than Bolted-On
If the value proposition of hyperconverged derives from integrating infrastructure in software, it’s reasonable to argue that deeper, structural integration will be more valuable than various software assemblages that lack this key attribute.
There shouldn’t be a need for a separate management interface.
There shouldn’t be a need for a separate storage layer that runs as a guest VM with dedicated resources, consuming precious resources and demanding attention.
There shouldn’t be a need for multiple installation / patching / upgrade processes.
There shouldn’t be a need to get support from two or more vendors.
And so on.
Within VMware, we use the term “hypervisor converged” to differentiate this important architectural difference between built-in vs. bolted-on.
I'll use vSphere + VSAN as my all-software example here. One, simple integrated environment. One management experience. One upgrade process. One source of support.
If our discussion of "market leadership" includes any notion of creating a more simple experience for users, I would argue that it’s hard to compete with features that are simple extensions of the hypervisor.
#3 — Having Lots Of Hardware Choices Is A Really Good Thing
If hyperconverged is really about software, why are many so paradoxically focused on “the box”? It’s nothing more than a convenient consumption option for someone who wants a fast time-to-value over other considerations.
Ideally, hyperconverged -- as a concept -- shouldn’t be welded to specific hardware.
For those that want a convenient consumption option such as prefab appliance with a locked-down config, great! That's certainly useful to a certain segment of the market.
But others might want a bit more flexibility, with a well-defined starting point. Yet another useful option.
And for those that really want to roll their own, a list of what is supported, augmented by tools to help you design and size a config that's right for you.
There's a vast list of reasons why more hardware choice is a good thing ...
Maybe there’s an existing investment that’s already been made.
Maybe there are requirements that aren’t satisfied well by the static configs available.
Maybe you've got a great sourcing arrangement for servers.
Maybe there’s a desire to use the latest-greatest technology, without waiting for an appliance vendor to offer it. Etc. etc.
Whatever the reason, increased hardware choice makes hyperconverged more compelling and more attractive for more people.
EVO:RAIL currently has 9 qualified EVO:RAIL partners. Virtual SAN (as part of vSphere) has dozens and dozens of ReadyNodes from server partners that can be ordered as a single SKU. And for everyone else, there's an extended HCL that allows for literally millions of potential configurations - plus the tools to figure out what's right for you.
If market leadership includes any notion of hardware choice, VMware stands apart from the rest of the hyperconverged crowd. Because, after all, it's software ...
#4 — There’s More To Enterprise IT Than Just Hyperconverged
Yes, there’s that old joke that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail :)
But there’s a more serious consideration here: when it comes to even modestly-sized IT functions, hyperconverged is only one part of a broader landscape that needs to be managed.
There’s inevitably a strong desire for common tools, processes and workflows that support the entire environment, and not just an isolated portion of it.
From an enterprise IT perspective, it's highly desirable to use the same operational framework for both virtualized and hyperconverged environments.
Going back to that controversial “market leadership” thing, how about the need for enterprise-scale management tools that aren’t limited to a single hyperconverged offering?
#5 — Customer Support Matters
If extreme simplicity is an integral part of the hyperconverged value proposition, customer support has to figure in prominently.
But there’s a structural problem here.
Not all of the hyperconverged appliance vendors have elected to be vSphere OEMs. That means that they don’t have the right to distribute the VMware software used in their product. It also means that they are not entitled to provide support for VMware software.
This arrangement has the potential to put their customers in an awkward position.
While I’m very sure all us vendors use our collective best efforts to support mutual customers, this state of affairs certainly isn’t ideal. Since all of these vendors provide a critical storage software layer, it may not be obvious where a problem actually lies.
Let’s say you have a performance problem with your hyperconverged appliance — who do you call?
The appliance vendor? VMware? Ghostbusters?
When it comes to providing customer support, VMware is typically ranked at the top (or near the top) in customer satisfaction — even though there are always potential areas for improvement. One call.
No argument: the customer support model and execution should factor into our notion of “market leadership”.
#6 — Useful Things Should Just Work
Most shops have gotten accustomed to using all the cool functionality in vSphere. And, presumably, they’d like to continue doing the same in their hyperconverged environment.
But that’s not always the case. Here’s one example ...
You’re probably familiar with vSphere HA — a great feature that automatically restarts workloads on a surviving host if there’s a failure.
In a shared storage environment, vSphere HA uses the management network to ascertain the state of the cluster, and coordinate restarts if necessary. HA assumes that external storage is always available, and all hosts can see essentially the same thing.
But what if there’s no external storage, and we’re using a distributed cluster storage layer?
While it’s true that many of the newer hyperconverged appliances set up their own logical network (primarily for storage traffic), you can see the potential problem: vSphere HA doesn’t know about the vendor's storage network, and vice versa.
Imagine if, for example, the storage network partitions and the management network doesn’t. Or if they partition differently. Sure, that’s not going to happen every day, but when it does — what exactly happens?
In the case of vSphere and VSAN, vSphere HA has been redesigned to use VSAN’s network, so there is zero chance of an inconsistent state between the two.
Let’s go for two examples, shall we?
Using vMotion to balance clusters is just about ubiquitous. You’d like to be able to move things around without screwing up application performance due to slow storage.
Well, one vendor’s attempt at “data locality” didn’t help so much. Move a VM, and performance degrades due to a design decision they made. Try and move it back, more degradation.
So another cool and useful vSphere feature now has sharp edges on it.
Not to pile on, but let's consider maintenance mode.
VMware admins routinely want to put a host in maintenance mode to work on it. All the workloads are conveniently moved to other servers, and nothing gets disrupted. But in our hyperconverged world, there's now storage to be considered.
VSAN has an elegant solution as part of the standard vSphere maintenance mode workflow -- the administrator gets a choice as to what they'd like to do with the affected data, and proceeds.
All other approaches require a separate workflow to detect and evacuate potentially affected data -- which creates not only a bit more complexity, but also that special opportunity to have a really bad day.
I’m sharing these annoying nits just to illustrate a point: a good hyperconverged environment should reasonably support the same everyday virtualization functionality and workflows you already use.
And, hopefully, with a minimum of “gotcha!”
Let’s factor that into our notion of “market leadership” as well …
#7 — Don’t Forget About Networking …
If we’re *seriously* discussing hyperconverged software, we have to ultimately consider software-defined networking in addition to compute and storage.
Otherwise, our stool only has two legs :)
The ultimate goal should be to give customers the option of running all three infrastructure functions (compute, storage, network) as an integrated stack running on their hardware of choice.
No, we’re not there yet today, but …
Converge server virtualization with both SDS and SDN, and the potential exists for even more efficiency, simplicity and effectiveness. Not to mention, a whole new set of important security-related use cases, like micro segmentation.
But to integrate SDN, you’ve got to have the technology asset.
Within the VMware world, that key asset is NSX. And while no vendor can offer a seamless integration between the three disciplines today, VMware has a clear leg up in this direction.
Dig deep into VSAN internals, and you can see progress to date. For example, VSAN works closely with NIOC to be a well-behaved citizen over shared 10Gb links. More to come.
Should hyperconverged vendors who claim market leadership have a plan for SDN and security use cases? I think so.
#8 — Is There A Compatible Hybrid Cloud Option?
Not all infrastructure wants to live in a traditional data center. There are many good reasons to want an operationally compatible hybrid cloud option like vCloud Air: cost arbitrage, disaster recover, short-term demands, etc.
Ideally, customers could have access to a hyperconverged experience that works the same -- using the same tools and workflows -- whether the hardware assets are in the data center, in a public cloud, or ideally both using the same management tools, sharing behaviors, etc.
It’d be great if the industry pundits factored this into their definition of “market leadership”. I’m not hopeful, though.
#9 — Is It Efficient?
One of the big arguments in favor of virtualization and hyperconverged approaches is efficiency: doing more with less.
Not to belabor an old argument, but there’s a certain economic appeal to hyperconverged software that uses compute and memory resources judiciously. The big motivator here for customers is better consolidation ratios for server and VDI farms. Better consolidation ratios = less money spent.
A hyperconverged storage solution that demands a monster 32 GB VM and potentially a few dedicated physical cores on each and every server gets in the way of that.
#10 — Where Do You Go From Here?
I remember clearly a meeting with a customer who introduced the purpose of the meeting: “we’re here to decide what to buy for tomorrow’s legacy”. I couldn't stop smiling :)
But it's an interesting perspective: one that reflects that IT strategy is often the result of many tactical decisions made along the way.
At one level, I’ve met IT pros who have an immediate need, and want an immediate solution. They want a handful of boxes racked up ASAP, and aren’t that concerned with what happens down the road.
Trust me, I can fully appreciate that mindset.
But there are many other IT pros who see each and every technology decision as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
There are over a half-million IT shops who have built their data center strategy around VMware and vSphere. Every one of them already owns many of the key ingredients needed for a hyperconverged solution.
More importantly, they trust VMware to take them forward into the brave new world of IT. : virtualized, converged, hyperconverged, hybrid cloud and ultimately to a software-defined data center.
And that’s a promise we intend to keep.
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