VCE chief boasts of hyperconvergence superpower

President Sakac eager to join forces with Dell; vows to stick with Cisco on converged infrastructure

VCE has only been in the hyperconverged appliance market since the February launch of its VxRail family, but President Chad Sakac says the company will soon be the No.1 player in that rapidly growing market. Sakac doesn’t lack for confidence, nor will his company – launched as a joint EMC/Cisco/VMware venture – lack for resources to back up his claims. VCE is now the converged infrastructure division of EMC and, if things go to plan, will soon be part of the merged Dell/EMC. That giant company, Sakac says, will boast a ‘superpower’ that gives it a huge advantage over rivals like Hewlett Packard Enterprise: Not being beholden to Wall Street, it can move customers more quickly to true utility models of IT.

In this interview with IDG Chief Content Officer John Gallant, Sakac discussed the roles converged and hyperconverged systems play in customers’ evolving data centers, and he shared his thoughts on the impact of the nearly finalized Dell/EMC deal. He also explained why Cisco – which sold off its stake in VCE some time ago – will always be a key component in the VCE portfolio.

You’re in both the converged and hyperconverged infrastructure markets. From a technical perspective what’s the difference between converged and hyperconverged. When would you apply converged infrastructure versus hyperconverged?

How they’re assembled and how their technology stacks work are quite different. However, what they represent for the customer is pretty similar. Both of them represent a path to simplify the way customers operate their infrastructure stacks so they can get out of the assembly business, get out of the build business and get into the buy and consume business. That allows them to take their dollars, time, people and resources and focus them on things that matter more to them. They are different formulations of the same core value proposition, which is stop building stuff that doesn’t differentiate you and is boring. Focus on consuming those things and take the resources that would otherwise have been spent on building, maintaining and updating [infrastructure] and use them for things that [drive] real innovation and business value for you.

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Where they differ is in one fundamental way, which is that converged infrastructure is made out of traditional infrastructure style designs - externalized storage, blades, networking components - that are assembled, built, designed and, very critically, sustained as a system. When you buy a [VCE] Vblock or a VxBlock, you are out of the business of actually buying the servers. There’s a tendency for people to look at it and say: I see [Cisco] UCS and EMC XtremIO in there. But you’re no longer buying those, you’re no longer patching those, you’re no longer maintaining those, you’re no longer even managing those. You have a Vblock or a VxBlock that you’re using and all of the sub-ingredients fade to black.

Since it’s built out of traditional ingredients, it has certain characteristics that are very good. It can scale economically with a broad variety of CPU, memory and storage ratios. Since it’s built out of traditional data center ingredients, it’s very good at supporting workloads that need the most traditional data center behaviors. For example, a mission-critical Oracle transactional database depends on very specific behaviors. It needs to support T10 disk, which is this really obscure thing but is very important for customers that have large Oracle footprints where there is an end-to-end CRC [cyclic redundancy check] throughout the whole stack.

If the database is really big, a latent IO problem anywhere in the stack - not just the storage but from the host all the way through - is actually a really difficult problem. Conversely, you have an SAP landscape that consists of all these different modules that need to be replicated with zero RPO in a consistent way. In other words, it’s the most traditional of the mission-critical workloads. Since converged infrastructure is built out of traditional data center ingredients it does very well at that.

Conversely, hyperconverged infrastructure is built on a system design that uses software-defined storage. It uses industry standard off-the-shelf server componentry and it’s designed to start small and scale up. Since it’s designed to start small and scale up and since it’s completely software defined, it’s much easier to operate, update, scale, patch and manage. The downside of that - and these are statements of fact, I’m not stating it the way that you would in marketing – is the software-defined storage stacks today do not have all the data services for those classes of workloads I described earlier.

So these things can coexist in the same data center?

In fact, for many customers, not only can they, they should. For many customers, the simplest answer is start with hyperconverged. VxRail can start as low as $60K list and, at its largest scaling point, it’s got almost 2,000 CPU cores, more than 2 petabytes of DRAM, can run 3,000 VMs and almost 5 petabytes of all-flash [storage]. That could run the entirety of many companies. However, there are some customers that say: 'That covers 90 percent of my workloads but 10 percent of my workloads need these specific capabilities and data services'. If you ask the customer, not by count, but how important are those other workloads to them, they’d say: That Oracle relational database, if that thing goes bump in the night, that’s my entire business.

I want to spend a minute and make sure people understand your key product lines. What is the difference between Vblock and VxBlock?

It’s very simple. Vblock and VxBlock differ in one and only one important area, which is that the networking component inside of VxBlock can support [Cisco] ACI and [VMware] NSX. A Vblock does not. A Vblock uses the [Cisco] Nexus 1000V, which is a software switch, but otherwise they are exactly the same.

When would a customer pick one versus the other?

Sixty percent of customers today choose a VxBlock because it gives them the open choice to add ACI, NSX or any combination of the two down the road. If a customer standardized on the Nexus 1000V as their software switch inside our VMware footprint, then the answer is a Vblock.

You mentioned some aspects about VxRail but could you give the quick overview of VxRail?

It was launched on Feb. 16 of this year and it’s been a rocket ship. VxRail is the best hyperconverged infrastructure appliance for customers who have standardized on [VMware] vSphere. If VSphere is how you build your software-defined data center and you want a turnkey hyperconverged infrastructure appliance, VxRail is the one for you. VxRail is co-engineered and co-developed by VMware and by EMC. It is designed to start very small, but it’s designed to scale really, really big. It’s optimized for all-flash and it can run all sorts of workloads including mission-critical workloads, so long as those workloads don’t need those very traditional data services.

You described it as a rocket ship. What are you experiencing in the market with that product?

In just four months, we’ve secured 360-plus customers in 59 countries. That’s only four months for customers to move from evaluation to deployment. That’s a very short timeframe. We’re well north of what we originally modeled in the business plan and it’s also incredibly geographically dispersed. We’re seeing small and large customers, customers in China, Japan, India, France, England, United States, Canada, you name it. That’s impressive. We’ve sold more than 2,000 nodes. This is a hotly contested market so to have 2,000 nodes sold over the competition is an incredible achievement out of the gate.

Just for clarity, a node in that definition is what?

In VxRail, the appliance can have anything from one to four nodes in it. The initial appliance for VxRail has to have four nodes but then subsequently you can add one node at a time. It’s a unit of measure of scaling.

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When it comes to hyperconvergence, what’s the difference in your strategy compared to a Nutanix, a Simplivity or what HP has discussed with their new hyperconverged solutions?

What I think is fundamentally different is that we don’t think the entire market can be served with a single product. There are wild differences between customers and to be able to serve the market as a whole you have to have a portfolio. Everyone else, they basically have hammer-and-nail syndrome. How has that been manifest? Let me give you a very specific example: Some customers say VMware is my standard and the best solution for me is one that leverages my existing standard. VxRail is engineered, it’s built hand in hand with VMware, its roadmap is always in 100 percent synchronicity with VMware. Its technology stack is designed to get the most leverage out of VMware’s integrated technologies like vSAN.

For a customer who says vSphere is my standard for how I deploy workloads within my enterprise - and that is the vast majority of the marketplace - VxRail and VxRail’s bigger brother, something called VxRack SDDC, is the best answer in the marketplace bar none. It performs the best, has the best ROI and has something that’s very important to customers, which is that there is no air gap between the hyperconverged infrastructure layer and VMware as a partner, from support, from roadmap, from engineering.

Conversely, some customers are not standardized on VMware. Maybe they’ve standardized for Hyper-V, KVM and OpenStack and they use some VMware on the side. VxRack FLEX is a hyperconverged appliance that is designed to scale very large. It can start as low as three nodes but it can scale up to a thousand nodes and it allows you to bring any persona you would like. In other words, if you want to bring VMware, great, if you want to bring KVM, great, if you want to bring Hyper-V and the Microsoft Azure stack, great. Is it as integrated with VMware? No. But it allows customers who want that flexibility to choose. You cannot build a product that optimizes for that first and second customer. If you’re a single-product company [you have to] try to convince that customer their strategy is wrong.

Over the years, there have been many, many times where people built just one thing that can support the entire universe. It sounds good because human beings like the idea of extreme simplicity. That’s our nature. The answer is that you want the maximum simplicity without actually hurting yourself. Going past that point, customers start to build solutions that are not optimized for them. Inevitably, anyone who has said there is one stack to rule them all, when they get sufficiently large and they encounter customers for which that stack doesn’t fit, they change their tune.

Do you envision ever selling hyperconvergence as a software-only solution?

In fact, some of it already is. Some customers want more optionality in how they build or design their systems. They’re thinking there’s some benefit to being able to sub-select componentry. In all hyperconverged appliances on the market, to my knowledge, the hardware is an industry-standard x86 server - very undifferentiated on its own. All the magic is in the software. However, what’s really valuable to the customer isn’t the software or the hardware, it’s the offer and the fact that it allows them to get out of the build business.

We offer the ingredients that power our appliances as software only. ScaleIO is available standalone. VSAN from VMware that powers VxRail is available as standalone software. The software that pulls it together for a management stack is in some cases available as software only. Is that really what you want? Do you have a hardware management team? That means you’re going to build, test, harmonize and that group will be responsible for the bare metal support for a hardware supply chain. Presumably you’ll be thinking about sparing and parts replacement and those sorts of things.

Look, if you are one of the hyper-scalers, if you are an Azure, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, you have a team of people that that’s all that they do. They’re the bare metal, hardware-layer management team. They manage standards, APIs, parts, inventory, all of that sort of stuff. If you’re going to want to bring your own hardware to the equation, you’re going to need that function. Should you? The answer is: God, no. It provides no differentiation for you, none. The point is when you choose a hyperconverged appliance, you’re choosing to buy, not build, so that you should assess its value as a system.

So the software-only solution is one in search of a market because for most customers it’s just not applicable?

The market which it serves is not the generalized enterprise market.

Earlier this year you became the converged infrastructure arm of EMC. How does the Dell/EMC merger change things for you? For example, Dell sells converged infrastructure today. Will there continue to be solutions from the combined Dell/EMC and VCE? What should customers expect?

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