2015 looks like a hyperactive year for hyper-convergence

VMware's VSAN 6 and EMC Vspex Blue launches start off what is shaping up to be a busy year in hyper-converged infrastructure.

This is shaping up to be a pivotal year for hyper-convergence.

VMware launched Virtual SAN (VSAN) 6 -- the second version of its VSAN hyper-converged software -- and EMC joined the VMware roster of VSAN partners with its Vspex Blue EVO: RAIL system in early February. The market is now crowded with vendors dedicated to hyper-convergence -- Nutanix, SimpliVity, Scale Computing, Pivot3, Maxta and Nimboxx -- plus VMware and its large EVO: RAIL partners.

While 2014 was largely about validation for hyper-convergence, 2015 will be about accelerating features and adoption for the early players.

Who are the early hyper-convergence leaders?

Hyper-converged systems combine compute, storage, networking and virtualization resources into one box. Nutanix and SimpliVity were among the first into the market, and are generally acknowledged as the leaders in technology and market share.

IDC's Marketscape report on hyper-converged systems published in December 2014 listed Nutanix as the clear leader, with SimpliVity the other player in the "Leaders" category. Other vendors included in the "Major Players" category were VMware, Scale Computing, EMC (ScaleIO) and Pivot3. Maxta, which sells hyper-converged software and prevalidated reference architectures with hardware partners HP and Cisco, was listed as a "Contender." The report did not include VMware EVO: RAIL partners such as Dell, HP, NetApp, Fujitsu and Supermicro that sell VSAN on commodity hardware.

Gartner's 2014 Magic Quadrant for Integrated Systems listed Nutanix and SimpliVity as visionaries. They were the only hyper-convergence players and the only privately held companies in the quadrant.

"Their technologies deliver much greater bonds between compute and storage components, and each vendor focuses on the management software stack as a chief differentiator," Gartner said of Nutanix and SimpliVity

IDC crowned Nutanix the market share leader with 52% of the hyper-converged market in the first half of 2014. Nutanix in January said it hit a $300 million annual run rate for the fourth quarter of 2014, which translates to a $75 million quarter. That followed a $50 million third quarter. Nutanix also claims 50 customers who have purchased $1 million or more of its products and services. And these are still early days in Nutanix's OEM deal with Dell that started in October 2014.

SimpliVity said it has shipped OmniCubes to over 1,500 customers in 2014, and it should receive a boost in coming quarters from a sales partnership with Cisco.

VMware is also claiming rapid growth for VSAN, currently with 1,000 customers in the ninth month that it has been available.

VMware's VSAN 6 makes it more competitive

VSAN 6 was about playing catch-up, but not leapfrogging the competition. VSAN is not the first to support all-flash. Nutanix began selling an all-flash system last year, as did Microsoft Hyper-V-centric vendor Gridstore. VSAN does not yet support any data reduction in VSAN. Except for SimpliVity, the other hyper-converged products support multiple hypervisors. VSAN is part of vSphere, and would have to be redesigned to support other hypervisors.

Still, by improving VSAN 6 in key areas VMware raised the bar for all of its competitors. The early hyper-converged vendors will not be able to stand still if they are to hold off VMware with VSAN 6 and its large EVO: RAIL partners.

Sunil Potti, who became Nutanix's senior vice president of engineering and product management in January, said competition from EVO: RAIL will help the market because large vendors are pushing hyper-convergence. But he said VSAN software powering EVO: RAIL is tied to one hypervisor, and that will limit its functionality. Nutanix supports VMware, Microsoft Hyper-V and KVM hypervisors.

Potti sees Nutanix enjoying the early-mover advantage in hyper-convergence that VMware had with hypervisors.

"It all comes down to -- did you start this from a net-new scrap of paper?" he said. "Is this foundationally a rewrite? It's always good when a majority of vendors embrace the architecture. But the winners do it with no dependency on legacy."

Potti said Nutanix will eventually branch out beyond the hyper-converged systems it now sells. He says the current hyper-converged infrastructure is "Act One" in the vendor's plans.

"Act Two will converge compute and storage across the data center into a hybrid cloud infrastructure," he said. "VMware [server virtualization] was about decoupling the application from the server. I believe Nutanix has the ability to decouple the application from the data center. We're just in the first stage now."

SimpliVity CEO Doron Kempel said he still considers VMware more of a partner than a competitor. Like Nutanix, SimpliVity was among the vendors at VMware's PEX partner show last week. OmniCube still supports only VMware hypervisors, although SimpliVity is working on support for Hyper-V and KVM.

Kempel said OmniCube and VSAN/EVO: RAIL usually turn up in different use cases. VSAN is commonly used for VDI and remote offices. Kempel said OmniCubes are frequently used for primary storage and to replicate data between cubes in different sites. He said more than 80% of its customers run Microsoft SQL databases on OmniCubes.

"People don't deploy SimpliVity to run VDI," he said. "They're running tier-one, mission-critical deployments."

VMware is counting on VSAN 6 to bring it into primary business-critical storage environments. Along with all-flash hardware, it added support for 64 nodes in a cluster and improved its snapshot capability. As part of vSphere, VSAN has a huge potential install base that can deploy it any time. And VSAN sales should get a boost this year from the upgraded version plus its EVO: RAIL OEM partners, although VSAN 6 will not be part of EVO: RAIL until the second half of 2015.

Kempel sees deduplication as SimpliVity's biggest advantage in the market, and he expects that to still be the case after VSAN adds the feature. SimpliVity's use of an ASIC to run its data compression is unique among hyper-converged products.

"In most hyper-converged products, you slow down the storage once you start getting into heavy workloads," Kempel said. "The processor runs the storage and the infrastructure. We do the heavy-duty infrastructure on our card. We don't slow down your application."

Nothing is slowing down the hyper-convergence momentum these days.

Next Steps

EVO: RAIL versus competitors: How do they stack up?

Hyper-convergence tops 2014 storage trends

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