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Cisco HyperFlex helps play hyper-converged catch-up

Cisco's HyperFlex hyper-converged strategy depends largely on startup Springpath's file system performing better than those from Nutanix, VMware and other competitors.

Slow to enter the hyper-converged infrastructure market, Cisco is looking to catch up with a file system built by OEM partner Springpath Inc. and Unified Computing System technology.

Cisco HyperFlex began shipping last month. The hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) platform uses Cisco UCS server and networking with startup Springpath's HALO software. The launch came more than a year after competing server vendors Dell and Hewlett Packard Enterprise brought out branded hyper-converged products. Early HCI players, such as Nutanix and SimpliVity, have even more of a head start on HyperFlex.

Todd Brannon, Cisco's director of marketing, said some earlier HCI players rushed to market with software less-suited to HCI than Springpath's HALO, which is called the Cisco Data Platform inside HyperFlex.

"A lot of first movers in this market really were trying to get to market quickly and had to make some design tradeoffs," Brannon said. "They took architectural shortcuts."

Brannon said Springpath's HALO is the first log-structured distributed object store software developed for hyper-convergence. That is why Cisco helped fund Springpath and picked it as an OEM partner, despite having go-to-market partnerships with SimpliVity and StorMagic for hyper-converged products.

"We placed a big bet on these guys," Brannon said of Springpath. "When we looked across the spectrum of technologies out there, they're the only one who sat down and built a file system from scratch tuned for this type of environment. They built a log-structured file system, different than a write-placed file system. That gives us a lot of benefits in terms of what we can [do] with inline deduplication and compression, point-based snapshots and cloning. It's a better fundamental platform to build on."

Cisco HyperFlex under the covers

While Springpath is new to the game, the HyperFlex hardware is well-known to Cisco users. It consists of UCS servers and integrated network fabric.

There are three types of Cisco HyperFlex nodes, all using Intel Xeon E5 2600 v3 processors, and running VMware 5.5 or later hypervisors and Cisco Data Platform software.

A 1U HX220c M4 node has two processors, 256 GB to 512 GB of memory, a 480 GB solid-state drive (SSD) for cache, and six 1.2 TB SAS hard disk drives. The 2U HX240c M4 node also has two processors, and includes up to 784 GB of memory, 1.6 TB SSD cache, and a maximum of 23 1.2 TB SAS HDDs. The HX240c M4 can be coupled with UCS B200 Blade Servers to add another two E5 2600 v3 processors for four processors per node. An HX240c M4 with a B200 server is a 6U configuration.

HyperFlex has a three-node configuration minimum and can scale to eight nodes. A cluster can contain different types of nodes. The HX220c is for compute-heavy workloads, the HX240c is for capacity-heavy workloads, and the B200 provides extra compute to a cluster. Each cluster includes two Cisco Fabric Interconnects for 10-Gigabit Ethernet networking between nodes.

HyperFlex only supports VMware hypervisors. Brannon said Cisco will add support for Microsoft Hyper-V and others, as well as containers. While each node has flash for caching, there is no all-flash model to match the all-SSD hyper-converged options that Nutanix, EMC, Gridstore and others sell.

"We haven't seen workloads that demand an all-SSD option yet," Brannon said.

Brannon pointed to virtual desktop infrastructures, remote offices, and test and dev as the major use cases at the start. Pricing starts at $59,000 for a three-node HyperFlex cluster.

Cisco's impact on hyper-converged, storage markets

Arun Taneja, president of Taneja Group Inc., in Hopkinton, Mass., said he expects Cisco HyperFlex to be the first step of a Cisco move deeper into storage. He said he also anticipates Cisco will buy Springpath, if HyperFlex succeeds. Although Cisco has partnered with most storage array vendors for its SAN switching and server products, it has mostly avoided head-to-head competition with storage vendors. The notable exception was its acquisition of all-flash array startup Whiptail in 2013, but Cisco discontinued the Whiptail product after less than two years.

Ever since Dell said it intended to buy EMC for $67 billion last October, industry insiders have anticipated Cisco would also make a move into storage.

My sense is that Cisco is using this OEM deal as a trial period and making sure Springpath works.
Arun Tanejapresident, Taneja Group

"Hyper-convergence is the natural way for Cisco to get into the storage game," Taneja said. "There's no question in my mind that they will pull the trigger this year. My sense is that Cisco is using this OEM deal as a trial period and making sure Springpath works. Cisco bought Whiptail, and got their tail whipped."

Brannon said Cisco considers HCI part of its overall converged infrastructure strategy, which includes storage partnerships with EMC for Vblock and VSPEX, NetApp for FlexPod, IBM for VersaStack and others. He said Cisco would continue its SimpliVity and StorMagic partnerships. Cisco is also a VMware Ready Node VSAN partner and strategic investor in Stratoscale, which develops software for rack-scale hyper-converged systems.

"As a systems vendor, we're not going to limit ourselves to one path," Brannon said.

But Cisco will obviously push its own HyperFlex product. That should be bad news for SimpliVity, which counted on Cisco to become a big part of its revenue stream.

SimpliVity's vice president of product strategy, Jesse St. Laurent, said he expects to continue to see strong sales through Cisco, even with HyperFlex on the market. He said his company has more than 300 customers and sold 1,000 systems through the Cisco reference architecture partnership.

"[Cisco] customers wanted the [SimpliVity] partnership," St. Laurent said. "We expect to continue to work with Cisco. We continue to see growth in the sales pipeline since the [HyperFlex] announcement. Cisco is very agnostic about what is good for their customers' environment. When they acquired Whiptail, they continued to work with NetApp. They have a history of broad partnerships with what initially looked like competition."

Sonia Lelii contributed to this story.

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