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COO: VCE converged infrastructure not affected by Dell-EMC

VCE's converged systems cater to a wide array of users, but will still differ from Dell's converged products after the purchase of VCE's parent company, EMC, according to COO Todd Pavone.

Like its parent company, EMC, VCE is going through a transition period. VCE recently named longtime EMC executive Chad Sakac its president to oversee the converged infrastructure group, which will likely grow in importance when server vendor Dell completes its $67 billion acquisition of EMC.

VCE COO Todd Pavone, who was part of VCE since its 2009 inception, said some things won't change -- even after Dell assumes control of EMC. Pavone said Cisco will remain in its current role as a VCE partner, and VCE's converged infrastructure products differ enough from Dell's converged offerings to avoid overlap.

VCE consists of three main converged system products: the Vblock, which uses Cisco networking and servers; VxRack for hyperscale environments; and the EVO:RAIL appliance VSPEX Blue.

SearchVirtualStorage recently talked to Pavone about VCE's converged infrastructure portfolio and strategy going forward as EMC's main converged infrastructure business.

You were one of the first converged architectures, but how do you differentiate yourself now that there are so many?

Todd Pavone: From our perspective, it's a couple different things. You need to have a portfolio that's broad, and that's why we created blocks, racks and appliances. We know you can't just take an appliance and try to use it to do everything. You can't just have a converged infrastructure. If we didn't have hyper-converged, that would have been limiting. And so, for us, you need to have best-in-class converged infrastructure. You need to have world-class hyper-converged, and we have two form factors for core and for edge [data centers]. And you need to have software that ties it all together.

It isn't a point product; it's a portfolio. And innovation is key. Three quarters of my engineers are software engineers, which people don't know -- the software is highly differentiated.

With blocks, racks and appliances, the idea is that you need different platforms for different workloads, but you still want to manage them as a single resource pool. So, we have software that sits on top of it, called Vision Intelligent Operations, which we embed in each of these products. Vision allows you to go manage all these things as a single resource pool. So, it doesn't matter where the workload sits, but you can manage them seamlessly with a single dashboard across your edge location, across your hyper-converged rack locations and your Vblock locations.

Vblocks were the first converged platform. Can you explain how those are architected?

Blocks, which is what we have predominantly installed for the last several years, are based on best-in-class, three-tiered architecture, networking from Cisco, servers from Cisco, storage, backup recovery technology from EMC and virtualization technology from VMware -- that is a block.

That is where, if you need to run your core business, you're going to run it on a block; you're going to know it's always going to be there, always be available and it's going to be highly resilient. Some of the largest financial service companies in the world run their core business on blocks. And they've been built for those critical workloads. We have two flavors of blocks. We have a Vblock, which is exclusive to Cisco, and with the pending Dell acquisition, [Vblock] will continue to always be exclusive to Cisco. We made that decision Day 1 when the pending Dell acquisition was announced. So, Vblocks won't change. And it's very important for our customers to know not only have they invested in something that stays with them today, they know we're going to continue to evolve it and engineer it, [and] make sure it's the best in class over time.

We also created something called a VxBlock within that same block family. The only difference is if a customer wants NSX, which is a virtual networking technology from VMware, we'll integrate that into the product and ship it -- we just brand that as a VxBlock. [It's] still standardized Cisco core networking technology, but it's leveraging NSX from VMware.

Now the VxBlock, over time, we built it as a brand where we could have different underlying technologies. Right now, the only difference is NSX, and we use customer demand to determine if we should be modifying that or not. And the Vblock, of what we predominantly sell today, will be exclusive to Cisco. It's probably overplayed, but it's an important point -- we get that question all the time.

Where does VSPEX Blue fit into the portfolio?

Hyper-converged by definition is where you use software to find technology to manage what people like to call a commoditized infrastructure, where there is no external storage. So, the intelligence is in the software, and you don't require the intelligence in the infrastructure. In the market, everyone has had an appliance, which is just a server with embedded storage or some marketed software, and ideal for edge locations or for single use cases. But you're not going to put SAP and run your mission-critical business on an appliance. They have scaling challenges, right? You get to a certain number of nodes, and then the performance degrades; you have to then create another cluster, another cluster. It's just not an ideal way to go run your mission-critical x86 workloads. [It's] good for an edge, good for a simple form factors, good for single use cases or what I'll call more simplified workloads.

In that space, there is something called VSPEX Blue, which is part of our appliance portfolio. VSPEX Blue was an EMC product that we rolled under VCE in the last year. And you can expect to see a next generation of that product early next year, where you'll see some even tighter integration to the overall VCE converged infrastructure portfolio.

You announced VxRack at EMC World 2015. What's the strategy behind that?

We believe that there was a major gap in the core data center for hyper-converged, where customers wanted hyper-converged architecture -- they don't want to invest in tier-one storage or tier-one servers. They want the intelligence in the software, but they also want massive scale. This is for globals, large service providers in a massive scale, like thousands of nodes. We have a large financial service company in New York that is using us for a platform-free application build-up. And they want to pilot it with 10,000 users, but it's going to go to 10 million users. And so, can we give them an infrastructure for 10,000, but can scale simply and easily to 10 million -- or 20 million?

You can't do that on an appliance, right? But they want hyper-converged. When you get to 10 million users, you want an infrastructure that scales and is nonlinear, leading to a lower cost model. So, we said, "There's a gap in that market," and we created the rack. The rack is a hyper-converged architecture, with no external storage. We actually engineered it similar to a Vblock to where it's not just a server -- it's built into an integrated enclosure, has a top rack switch and has great flexibility on how you can build it out with heavy compute or low compute. You can mix and match server types, which are important with different workloads. You can scale it literally from four nodes to thousands of nodes.

How often do you see your customers buying two or all three of the VCE converged infrastructure products?

It depends. In today's world, we have some customers that want a bulletproof, three-tiered, best-in-class architecture that's going to a converged Vblock system. We have others that have said they'll never buy tier one again. They want hyper-converged. Therefore, they're going to go to a rack and appliance architecture. The reality is most customers are doing all of it -- especially big customers. They want hyper-converged in their core for these new applications that they're building out. They may have more traditional workloads that they're going to put in a block. Then, they have all these edge locations, where they'll drop an appliance.

One of the risks that we see in the marketplace for these appliance players is they're trying to take that appliance that's been architected for what I think are more single, simple, edge use cases, and they're trying to put those into the core. We said, "Rather than trying to do that, we're going to build an architecture for scale." Because if you study Nutanix and SimpliVity, any of these companies that we know really well, they have scale limitations. They get to certain nodes sizes, and they break. And then, you have to cut another cluster, you have to cut another cluster.

That's not ideal for a core data center, because now, you're managing all of them individually -- you can't tie them into your other core systems. And so, now, you have proliferating silos, which for us is ... we think that's a big no-no. Your operational costs aren't going to improve.

What type of companies are VCE's most common customers?

Our sweet spot initially has been medium to large globals, to large service providers. And initially, our sweet spot was the core data center, but it's now extended into the edge. We have a customer in Canada that has hundreds of edge locations and a core data center. They love the idea of our appliances in the edge and our VxRacks in the core, and our Vblocks in the core and tying it all together. [Our number of customer accounts] is in the 1,500 to 2,000 range. We don't have tens of thousands of customers, which means we are able to give a pretty unique customer experience.

We'll see what happens with the Dell model, because right now, who knows if that'll play out or not. But if it does, they're tremendous in the [small and medium-sized business, or SMB] market, and we're good at the high-end markets. So, you could see a very good potential complement.

How will you deal with overlap after the Dell-EMC acquisition? Dell has an EVO:RAIL appliance.

There's very little overlap when you look at it, which is I think the power of this merger of the two companies. They actually, for the most part, complement each other very well. Dell has a tremendous channel to the SMB; I believe the best supply chain in the world. So, if or when this happens, we get to leverage that. And by the way, we get to maintain the Vblock as Cisco, which is important, because customers love the Cisco technology for networking servers. We're never going to change that. So, from my perspective, we get the best of both worlds. We get to come together with a great supply chain, great technology that gets us into place that we were never able to get to, and we maintain what we have and to continue to evolve what we have in that core data center.

Who do you see as your main competitors?

We have a lot of competitors. You have the traditional competitors, which are the companies that have been around a long time, like the HPs, IBMs and Oracles of the world. They all come at it from a little bit of a different angle. You have the public cloud companies that are all fighting for these workloads. Some of those are competitors, some are not, because we can plug into an Amazon, we can plug in to whatever it is to make it easier for customers if they want. If cost is your only criteria, and that's all you care about, you may put it in the public cloud. And so, for us, that's fine. Have it interfacing to it and let it sit there. Virtustream, which EMC acquired a year ago, gave us a lot of power, because they're going to be run on VCE converged infrastructure technologies, and that now gives a cloud option to customers in addition to what we do.

Then, you have what I call the appliance disruptors, and there's a bunch of them in that space. So, you have traditional, you can have the public cloud, and then you have these disruptors in the world that are kind of in this little edge appliance place, all coming at it from different angle.

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