First Ban The SAN, Then VMware

The conventional wisdom these days is that the server virtualization hypervisor is a commodity, and as the executives at hyperconverged infrastructure upstart Nutanix are putting it as they rev their software stack, “it is the new sheet metal for the cloud era.” While that makes a good metaphor, it is somewhat ironic, then, that Nutanix has cooked up its own hypervisor, called Acropolis, that can be placed at the heart of its server-storage hybrid clusters.

Perhaps a better way of putting this, and one that reflects the true position of the hypervisor in the modern enterprise datacenter, is that it is foundational and the place from which all other profits higher up the toolchain are derived. And that fact is precisely why Nutanix is making so much noise about its homegrown Acropolis hypervisor and the new Prism management tools that are used to control that hypervisor and the other elements of what the company is now calling the Nutanix Xtreme Computing Platform, or XCP for short.

It is the nature of companies to hire marketing people, who spend a lot of time changing brands and names for features of their software stacks. Nutanix partner and sometime rival VMware has certainly done this as its products have evolved over the years, causing a certain amount of confusion, but this does not change the underlying fact that most of the functionality in the VMware server virtualization stack is embedded in the hypervisor itself, which is available for free (but is certainly not open source) but which cannot have most of its features unlocked and usable unless you buy a vSphere license and the vCenter management console.

This may seem like a fine point to make, but it is an important one given that Nutanix, by far the mindshare and marketshare leader in the hyperconverged systems space, is up against a VMware that has 500,000 existing customers, compared to 1,400 at Nutanix (which again, makes it the leader in this space and has given it a $300 million run rate), and importantly, can leverage the combination of its vSphere server virtualization tools and Virtual SAN to counter Nutanix as it tries to expand in the enterprise datacenter. In many ways, the Nutanix Distributed File System, which includes data compression and de-duplication features that are not currently part of VSAN because Nutanix, unlike VMware, is absolutely trying to get customers to unplug real storage area networks made by EMC, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, IBM, and others and move to hyperconverged X86 server clusters that put compute and storage on the same iron.

The point is this: Nutanix started out embedding its file system and goodies inside of VMware ESXi virtual machines on each server node, and while it supports Microsoft‘s Hyper-V as an alternative, most of its customers choose ESXi to host its file system. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for Nutanix to help VMware make money as it sells its hyperconverged appliances. So it is no surprise that Nutanix eventually got around to creating its own analog to ESXi/vSphere and vCenter, which is being unveiled this week at the company’s .NEXT user conference in Miami.

When Nutanix uncloaked from stealth mode August 2011 after more than two years of product development, CEO Dheeraj Pandey unabashedly said that the company absolutely wanted to ban the SAN from the datacenter. Now, it seems that Nutanix wants to ban VMware from hyperconvergence. It will be a tough fight, but it is basically the main one Nutanix has to engage in if it wants to help its investors, who have pumped $312.5 million in five rounds of funding into the company, recoup their investments and grow the company to keep its more than 50 percent share of the hyperconverged appliance space. As we reported back in May when Nutanix released the freebie Community Edition of its software stack, IDC reckons that this market will more than double to $807 million in 2015, and we project that given the way markets hit the limits of large numbers in the server racket, this hyperconverged market could grow to somewhere between $3 billion and $4 billion within the next several years and then settle down. There is plenty of money at stake here, even if the valuations for Nutanix and VMware alike are probably out of whack with the scale of that opportunity. (Wall Street is crazy, and our retirements all depend on it staying precisely that way.)

The Acropolis hypervisor is based on the open source KVM hypervisor, which is the one that is available inside of most Linux distributions and the one most commonly paired with the OpenStack cloud controller, too. Greg Smith, senior director of product and technical marketing at Nutanix, tells The Next Platform that the goal is to keep the Acropolis implementation of KVM in lockstep with the KVM hypervisor embedded in Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Canonical Ubuntu Server to maintain compatibility. The Nutanix implementation of KVM has security enhancements and self-healing capabilities from SaltStack.

nutanix-acropolis-block-diagram

The Acropolis hypervisor, as it turns out, is the very KVM hypervisor that Nutanix launched with the Community Edition beta back in May, although the company did not say that at the time.

Significantly, the Acropolis hypervisor will be the first hypervisor that will support a new part of the Nutanix suite called the App Mobility Fabric. This layer of software will ride atop the distributed file system that provides SAN functionality for virtualized servers and handle the placement of VMs to ensure the best data locality for workloads as well as allow for VMs to be migrated as data paths and data capacity changes or some other aspect of the application changes that warrants a live migration, and interestingly, the Acropolis App Mobility Fabric layer will also include tools to convert from one VM format to another. Smith says that this VM conversion software is homegrown, and it will be interesting to see how well it works. Obviously, to take on VMware and Microsoft, even in its own installed base, Nutanix has to be able to convert existing ESXi and Hyper-V VMs to its Acropolis KVM format, so this feature was a necessity.

This mobility fabric is also how Nutanix will eventually weave in support for Docker containers and perhaps other container formats such as CoreOS rkt, Linux containers, or plain vanilla cgroups as customers demand. The important thing is that the Prism management tool, which is now separate from the file system and the virtualization layers, will provide a single view into VMs and containers running on Nutanix clusters.

The separation of the file system, fabric, and management tools could have more strategic importance for Nutanix over the long haul. It could eventually abandon its appliance model and certify its software on stock X86 machines (we think Community Edition is as much about building a hardware compatibility list through the community as it is seeding a base of users to upgrade to Enterprise Edition) and then sell bits of its software separately. Nutanix could also go one strategic step further if it needs to do something more to take business away from VMware and open source elements of its stack, perhaps starting with the file system and then the fabric, selling support and the Prism tool separately. (This latter way is the model that the Hadoop distributions use.)

The Acropolis hypervisor is also intimately linked to the underlying file system that spans the cluster, which was originally called the Scale-Out Storage System, or SOCS, back in 2011, which was renamed the Nutanix Distributed File System a few years back, and which is now called the Acropolis Distributed Storage Fabric. And lest anyone be confused, Smith wanted to be perfectly clear that Nutanix was in no way abandoning its support for ESXi or Hyper-V. But the fact that both the Acropolis hypervisor will be supporting the new mobility fabric to start is a pretty strong signal that going forward, Nutanix will be pushing its own complete stack hard.

Nutanix Prism Capacity Behavior Trends

The interesting bit is that Nutanix is rolling the Acropolis hypervisor, the new Acropolis fabric, and the Prism management tool all into its appliances (as well as those made by distribution partner Dell) for free. VMware ESXi and vSphere are not cheap, and often cost as much as a physical server on which they run. This will translate into an immediate cost savings for customers who don’t want to re-up their license agreements with VMware in the future. It will also make Nutanix that much more appealing to companies looking to minimize the cost of their hyperconverged infrastructure.

But it is important not to get too far ahead of ourselves here. VMware is the undisputed king of server virtualization in the enterprise datacenter, and while plenty of companies grumble about the prices that VMware charges, most are pretty happy with the level of sophistication of the tools and, perhaps most importantly, are long familiar with how the VMware software operates and how much capacity it takes to use it. To convince customers to make a switch, Nutanix will have to identify greenfield application opportunities at large enterprises and go through a lengthy trial process, this being the only path forward.

This is precisely how VMware became the juggernaut of server virtualization, after all. It takes time, money, patience, and luck.

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