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There have been rumors of VMware making a move in the hardware business, and more specifically, the hyper-converged market, for much of 2014. There had been chatter on Twitter of a project named Mystic, then Marvin. Different analysts and news reports leaked small details but it was still anyone's guess what the product would be and what it would be called.
It didn't take long for VMware to clear things up on the first day of VMworld 2014 in San Francisco. VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger announced EVO:RAIL and EVO:RACK during his keynote. It appears that EVO:RAIL had been known as the Starbust project, while Marvin was the hyper-converged infrastructure appliance (HCIA). Together, they combine to create VMware's venture into hardware territory.
This does not mean that VMware is now a hardware company. The hardware portion will be sold by several vendors. Customers can purchase EVO from leading server vendors who will produce the pre-verified hardware platform. The EVO part of the stack promises rapid provisioning and expansion of the platform. A reduction in the management of the platform is also expected from the new EVO layer that sits on top of EVO:RAIL Rapid Deployment, Configuration and Management; vSphere Enterprise Plus; vCenter Server; VMware Virtual SAN; and vCenter Log Insight.
Now that you have a base idea of what VMware is offering with EVO:RAIL, you're probably wondering how they compare to the competition. To keep the scope of this comparison manageable, let's limit the comparison to Nutanix and Simplivity, the leading vendors in the hyper-converged space.
Deployment, management and scaling
The ongoing management of hyper-converged offerings is often talked about as one of its biggest benefits. I think it's assumed that if I deploy one of these appliances, it must be easier than what I am supporting today. And, if I want to add nodes and scale it, then it must also be simple and take much less time than current designs.
With this in mind, I think that this firmly puts Nutanix in the leader position, but VMware has leapfrogged Simplivity to take the second place with its initial EVO offering. Both Nutanix and VMware have created a Web-based approach that easily deploys the product, with the admin only having to answer a few questions in the process. Simplivity does simplify the process compared to a roll-your-own infrastructure, but currently trails what the other two are offering.
The ongoing patching and upgrade process follows the deployment methods with Nutanix and VMware leading the way. Lastly, the scaling option closely resembles the deployment method, keeping the ranking in the same order for all vendors in this area. I have seen a lot of improvement in this space from the vendors and I'm impressed with what VMware is offering in their first release.
After the simplifications that hyper-converged offers in management, the promise of great storage performance is next in line. This part of the comparison will be the hardest because EVO is new and testing will need to be performed before a final rating can be applied. But this new entry should help everyone in this space when competing with legacy storage solutions. Based on previous VSAN testing, EVO is still trailing Nutanix and Simplivity, who are neck and neck in storage.
I think, given the chance to test some actual EVO configurations, VMware might be able to contend with Nutanix and Simplivity, who are both doing some unique things that VMware is not doing yet with VSAN.
We all know that we will likely see VSAN 2.0 next year when vSphere 6.0 is released. EVO customers who upgrade will likely see a performance increase, but the question is whether VMware can close the gap or possibly move up a spot with any of the future improvements.
Replication, DR and backup
The ability to back up, replicate and automatically fail over virtual machines (VMs) is not an optional set of features these days. The incumbent hyper-converged companies have spent a lot of effort in creating a good story in this space, and include them with their base offerings.
We know the products from VMware that will be included as part of the EVO offering. What we don't know are some of the products that you would typically get as part of it. For the sake of this article, I'm going to assume that since you are getting vSphere Enterprise Plus licensing you will also get access to VDP standard for backups. I think that VDP offers a good backup story compared to the snapshot-based backups the other vendors offer.
For replication, VMware is solidly in third place with vSphere replication as the method. All of the vendors covered here offer per-VM replication, with Nutanix and Simplivity offering more robust offerings. All of these third-party vendors offer deduplication and compression as part of their replication functions, which is a great savings in bandwidth. The other vendors also offer the ability -- or will soon -- to replicate VMs to Amazon. This is a new feature for both companies, but shows leadership is supporting cloud options.
All vendors offer VMware SRM support for automating the failover of your VMs. SRM is not included as part of any of the offerings but can easily be configured.
The hardware details are a bit lean at the moment. What we do know is that EVO:RAIL will be a 2U appliance with four server nodes, much like the Nutanix offerings based on Supermicro hardware. We also know that there will be a model focused on core server virtualization and one for VDI. What we don't know yet is the exact configurations. VMware is telling users that there will be dual-socket servers with E5 processors, but there has been little to no mention of the core count on these configurations. They are offering a rough server VM vs. VDI VM count per appliance.
VMware also announced EVO:RACK, which is currently in tech preview. This option will likely be more geared toward competing with Vblock from VCE. The RACK option will be based on rack-mount servers and possibly the same HCIA nodes as RAIL. It will also include vCloud Suite and NSX, providing a full SDDC solution. RACK will scale to larger numbers of nodes than the current 16-server limit for RAIL.
If we look at what the other vendors offer, Nutanix has the most complete offering in the market to this point. They have a model that covers remote office/SMB, several models that handle the average server and virtual environments, a VDI-focused model with GPU support and a large model for Tier 1 applications. You also have flexibility to choose the amount of flash storage available in certain models to accommodate more demanding workloads.
Simplivity currently offers three models. They break down to essentially a small, medium and large offering, with the medium offering making the most sense for the majority of customer environments.
Both Nutanix and Simplivity offer greater choice in configuration today, which is expected with them being in the market longer. What looks like only two models today from VMware will surely increase over the coming quarters, and the option to choose from multiple server vendors is a plus.