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How will EMC, Dell position EVO: RAIL appliances?

EMC and Dell have signed on to sell VMware EVO: RAIL hyper-converged appliances, but both have other products that can be seen as competitive.

SAN FRANCISCO -- EMC's inclusion as one of VMware's EVO: RAIL partners disclosed at VMworld 2014 was surprising in some ways, and expected in others. So was Dell's, but for a different reason.

EMC is the only pure storage player among EVO: RAIL's initial partners. EMC is not a server vendor and RAIL includes server cores along with storage and networking. EMC also usually does not slap other companies' software on its hardware and release it as a storage platform. RAIL will compete with products EMC sells, especially for virtual desktop infrastructures (VDI). And while EMC owns VMware, it appears VMware is driving this arrangement.

Then again, EMC has been hinting that a hyper-converged product was coming since VMware's Virtual SAN (VSAN) became generally available in March. EMC doesn't have the type of product that competes directly with a group of emerging vendors, including Nutanix, SimpliVity, Scale Computing, Maxta Software, Compuverde and Nimboxx. EMC already has more storage platforms than any other company, but its strategy is to overlap, if necessary, to avoid leaving a gap in the market.

There is bound to be confusion among EMC customers. EMC executives spent a lot of time at EMC World in May explaining why ScaleIO, ViPR and VMware's VSAN weren't competitive products. Now it has its own VSAN box to sell, and another product to explain.

According to a blog posted on Monday by EMC senior vice president Chad Sakac, EVO: RAIL will include the same Phoenix general purpose server that runs ScaleIO and ViPR stacks on the EMC Elastic Cloud Storage appliance.

"EMC is not (and has no intention in being) a general server vendor -- so we don't 'sell' Phoenix, but use it in all forms of appliances," Sakac wrote.

Got that? EMC's version of EVO: RAIL will ship with a server platform that EMC doesn't sell. What else do we know?

Sakac said he considers EVO: RAIL an OEM program rather than a product like VMware describes it. VMware executives say RAIL products from all vendors will have the same look and feel, but EMC will add its own technology. Sakac writes about EMC integrating its data protection products such as RecoverPoint, and vSphere Data Protection (VDP) and VDP Advanced (VDPA). VDP and VDPA are VMware backup products that use EMC's Avamar software.

Sakac added "you can imagine much more" coming from EMC on top of RAIL.

Dell now has VMware and Nutanix hyper-convergence

Unlike EMC, Dell admits to selling servers. The suspicion here is that Dell's server group drove the EVO: RAIL deal while Dell's storage team led the Nutanix OEM relationship announced in June. Because VSAN directly competes with Nutanix appliances, Dell sales reps could have a tough time rationalizing those products.

Dell announced two versions of EVO: RAIL in a Monday blog by chief technical evangelist Sam Greenblatt. There will be a Dell Engineered Solution for EVO: RAIL for VMware-based virtualized instances, and another EVO: RAIL system for VMware Horizon View VDI deployments. Dell plans to begin shipping the Dell XC Series of appliances with Nutanix software around October. A Dell spokesman said the main difference between the hyper-converged platforms is Nutanix also supports Microsoft Hyper-V and KVM hypervisors as well as VMware vSphere. VMware, of course, only supports vSphere.

Other established storage vendors are taking a hands-off approach to hyper-convergence -- or at least a wait-and-see approach. NetApp is a big proponent of VMware's other big storage technology at VMworld 2014 -- Virtual Volumes (VVOLs) -- and partners with VMware and Cisco on FlexPod reference architectures, but isn't looking to add server-based storage.

"We see hyper-converged as a variant of our FlexPod," said Adam Fore, NetApp's director of virtualization solution marketing. "[Hyper-converged systems are] built for smaller business that want to simplify installations. FlexPod does that for our enterprise customers. I don't see us getting into selling servers."

Hewlett-Packard, another close VMware partner for VVOLs and other uses of VMware software, sees its StoreVirtual Virtual Storage Appliance as fitting the use cases that VSAN goes after.

"I look at VSAN as VMware's approach to making storage easier with vCenter," said Craig Nunes, HP's vice president of storage marketing. "We think StoreVirtual does that and so much more. It brings enterprise-class storage to a hypervisor environment well beyond what VSAN is doing today. VSAN is a single-hypervisor product, and you can't build a storage platform on a single hypervisor. VSAN is still nascent and doesn't deliver what folks consider the minimum enterprise-class software-defined storage capability."

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VMworld 2014 conference coverage

EVO: RAIL is announced at VMworld 2014

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What do you consider the best use case for hyper-converged storage?
I think EMC is pretty frightened of developments like SSD and commodity drives, and is sticking its fingers into lots of pies in hopes of making sure it doesn't miss out on anything and keeps its relevance.