The Server SAN market is pretty new but VMware and EMC have already started disrupting the market. Both VMware and EMC have entered the competition of hyper-converged infrastructures or more specifically the Server SAN market with purely software plays. VMware with an impressive solution called VSAN (not vSAN) built around their vSphere hypervisor solution. EMC has introduced a bare metal variant called ScaleIO. The market for Server SAN is getting crowded with existing appliance providers that include Scale and Nutanix. I’m wondering if the EMC and VMware software only plays will force appliance providers to follow suit.
Introduction of Server SAN
First a little background on the concept of Server SAN (see Wikibon Server SAN Introduction) convergence. The idea is pretty straight forward. SAN’s at their core are a bunch of commodity servers with disk trays that provide shared storage via some high speed medium. The magic in enterprise SAN is providing scale, performance and reliability. This is where traditional SAN products have excelled over basic file servers. Server SANs take this idea and build the scale, reliability and performance into a software layer that can be installed on commodity x86 hardware. In addition to SAN features, these systems can be used to run hypervisor environments such as VMware vSphere or Hyper-V. The combination of compute and storage resources is a hyper-converged infrastructure.
SAN technology is hard
Creating a hyper-converged product is hard stuff. Simple solutions like VMware’s appliance based Virtual Storage Appliance (VSA) could offer basic SAN capability, but not at the scale required for most production workloads. Enter providers such as Nutanix. These companies took very specific x86 configurations and optimized their code to allow highly scalable solutions. This approach allowed for the creation and validation of the Server SAN architecture.
VMware has taken the idea a bit further by allowing organizations to select hardware from a more generalized pool. For example, if you have standardized on HP hardware for compute you could leverage your existing x86 servers and just add the needed storage and software. This is a compelling choice and leads to the question if “traditional” converged appliance providers need to consider offering software only versions of their product. Basically, bring your own compute and storage (BYOCS) option.
We are pretty early in the product cycles for the software only approach to storage. But, I believe the answer will not be based on compute only. I believe more weight will be put to the software defined storage capability that’s provided by the platform. One of the revolutionary concepts brought by VMware’s VSAN is storage profile policies. The tight integration with VMware’s virtualization platform allows administrators to set performance policies based on VMware’s or applications. Innovations such as this may be much more significant than any potential savings on hardware.
Time will tell
Appliance manufacturers have an argument for the ability to support hypervisors outside of VMware while adding similar profile capabilities to other platforms such as Hyper-V and KVM. This is where the ScaleIO solution puts pressure on the other side of the balloon. ScaleIO supports a multi-hypervisor approach. Stripping away the reliance of a particular hypervisor allows apples to apples comparison of software only solutions and appliances. I’m headed to Storage Field Day 5 next week and will be talking to vendors like Scale about the advantages of one approach over another.
In this post, I tried to address the competition between a product such as VSAN and Nutanix. Both solutions fall into the Server-SAN product category. I believe I failed at my attempt to show how VSAN validates the software first sub-category in the market. VSAN decouples the SAN software from the Server SAN hardware. This means that you can basically roll your own Server SAN using your existing or new commodity parts. Solutions such as Nutanix tightly couple the hardware and Server SAN software which enables consistent performance and support across their product line. Yes, similar software solutions such as HP StoreVirtual have been on the market for some time. But, I’ve always viewed StoreVirtual’s software only option positioned as a test/dev environment solution. Something not meant for production applications. VMware is marketing VSAN as a production level solution that will compete against their parent company’s mid-tier storage arrays for example. From my view of the landscape no other software only Server SAN vendor is making this claim.
I’m standing by my statement that VSAN is disruptive to the Server SAN market leader Nutanix. To Han De Leenheer’s point below, yes VSAN is a direct result from VMware taking Nutanix seriously but it’s still a very competitive response. I believe it’s a strong enough response that it will force Nutanix to evaluate decoupling their SAN software from their hardware. Whenever you force your competitor to re-evaluate their product strategy it’s called being disruptive.
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