Cisco HyperFlex’s some data center muscle, fuels HCI war

Cisco introduces new capabilities for its HyperFlex 2.5 Systems that triples the VM density of its first-generation products

Cisco HyperFlex’s some data center muscle, fuels the HCI wars
Martyn Williams

It’s safe to say that the hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) market has heated up in a big way. In September 2016, Nutanix went public and had a fantastic IPO. Since then, the company’s stock has slid due in part to increased competition from the likes of Dell-EMC, which recently extended its HCI products to private clouds, and HP Enterprise, which acquired SimpliVity earlier this year.

Today it is Cisco’s turn to make some HCI noise by introducing new capabilities for its HyperFlex 2.5 Systems that triples the VM density of its first-generation products. The performance capabilities and comparison to competitors are backed up in an Enterprise Strategy Group report. I’m often dismissive of some of these testing reports because the results can be skewed depending on how the tests are set up, but I have a great deal of respect for the good folks over at ESG, so I’ll take these at face value. 

HyperFlex 2.5 features

The newest version of HyperFlex is loaded with technology to address the changing needs of HCI. The technology has gone through its initial wave of experimenting, and it’s becoming more mainstream. That means customers need higher performance, better security and manageability. Cisco addressed each of those with the following features: 

  • High-capacity all-flash nodes and support for 40 Gig UCS fabric networking.
  • HyperFlex Connect is a new management interface featuring a standalone HTML5 interface, dynamic systems analytics and cluster orchestration. Connect can also interface with other solutions via APIs.
  • Enterprise-grade data management, protection and security for security-conscious verticals and sensitive workloads. You also get native replication to protect applications and data-at-rest security options using self-encrypting drives.
  • Integration with Cisco ONE Enterprise Cloud Suite (ECS) for hybrid cloud mobility.
  • Metering and workload automation via self-service catalogs. These are enabled through the integration of ECS UCS Director that allows IaaS orchestration for private and hybrid services.

Cisco’s HyperFlex product is an OEM of HCI start-up Springpath. I know many channel partners and customers that would like Cisco to acquire the company. In fact, in December 2016 I predicted Cisco would purchase Springpath this year. But after having more time to think about the company and the market, it’s probably better left as a standalone company for now. 

Fast-moving HCI industry

The HCI industry is moving very fast, and that means the vendors need to adapt quickly. As a standalone company, Springpath can be more nimble and respond to customer needs faster than if it were part of the Cisco machine. I still believe Cisco will eventually acquire Springpath, but for the time being, it’s better off letting it act like a start-up instead of slowing down the engine.

The HCI industry will be an interesting one to follow over the next few years.

As part of its announcement, Cisco claimed it has about 1,100 customers, which is about the same number Dell-EMC reported earlier this year. The ESG report shows Cisco has a performance advantage over three vendors, which I assume are Dell-EMC, Nutanix and HPE – SimpliVity. 

But it’s not just technology features that will determine the winners and losers in this market.

For example, there is no HCI vendor that has better integration with the VMware vSphere than the Converged Infrastructure Group at Dell-EMC. If a customer is running vSphere, it’s a no brainer to use VxRack or VxRail. No one does engineered systems better than Chad Sakac’s group inside Dell-EMC, and it will be tough to keep pace with it.   

8kpc is a lesser known vendor, but it provides a distinct price/performance advantage to the rest of the field. The company cut its roots in India and other emerging markets and is now bringing its technology to the U.S. 

HPE recently acquired SimpliVity, and it now needs to make some decisions with its customer base. A big chunk of customers run SimpliVity on Cisco UCS, and Cisco has loudly stated it will continue to support all of its customers that run SimpliVity on UCS. Obviously, HPE would prefer to keep Cisco out of their accounts, but it needs to find a graceful way to make this transition without upsetting customers. 

This brings us to the market leader, Nutanix, which pioneered the HCI market. It is currently the de facto standard and market leader by a long shot, but never has it faced this level of competition. Two years ago, the company was the 800-pound gorilla, and now it is staring at a number of formidable foes. It’s not unprecedented for a niche vendor to thwart off bigger competition (for example, F5 Networks), but it is rare, so Nutanix’s next move is a critical one. 

It’s only March, and it’s already been a busy year for HCI. Given the speed of IT today, that’s a good thing for buyers. The need to constantly stay ahead of the competition will drive this industry at digital speeds. Expect much more in 2017.

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