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More RAM, new chips may open doors for hyper-converged infrastructure

Greater memory and faster chips will better suit VMware's hyper-converged infrastructure for Tier 1 workloads, the company hopes, as its tries to outdo market-leading Nutanix.

More horsepower and firepower are coming soon to data centers with VMware's latest crack at hyper-converged hardware.

The continued expansion of hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) from remote and branch offices into the core of the data center is part of the latest anticipated updates to VMware's first piece of HCI hardware, VxRail.

As part of that move, VxRail will expand from 512 MB of RAM to 768 MB per node and ship with Intel Xeon E5 v4 chips (Broadwell), replacing Intel Xeon v3 chips, SearchDataCenter has learned. Right now, each node has up to 28 processor cores, but the core count is also expected to change soon, as early as this week's Dell EMC World in Austin, Texas.

The RAM and processor speed advances will mean enterprise IT shops itching to get Tier 1 workloads to hyper-converged infrastructure will find it easier to do so, said Arun Taneja, founder and consulting analyst at Taneja Group Inc., in Hopkinton, Mass., who helped coin the term hyper-convergence.

Running Tier 1 workloads on HCI is more than "feeds and speeds," and it will mean guaranteed service-level agreements, quality of service and other features that are only now coming on most HCI, he said.

In the latest quarterly Voice of the Enterprise survey from 451 Research, 40% of organizations surveyed said hyper-converged infrastructure is currently in use. That number is expected to rise during the next two years, in part, because a quarter of respondents said they have hyper-converged infrastructure in a pilot phase or have plans for future adoption.

HCI is moving beyond some initially popular workloads, such as virtual desktop infrastructure and DevOps, as users see increased value from it and migrate more data-intensive and complex workloads onto HCI, said Krista Macomber, senior analyst at Technology Business Research Inc., in Hampton, N.H.

More nodes and cores

Users can start with four nodes in one appliance and can scale with another appliance with as little as one node; originally, it only allowed four nodes per appliance, but VMware made changes when it released the all-flash version of VxRail this summer.

"Users automatically said, 'That isn't going to work for me, I want to scale one node at a time,'" Kyle Danaceau, a vArchitect at EMC's converged platforms and solution division -- formerly VCE -- told attendees at a recent VMware event in Boston.

VxRail can scale to 64 nodes and 16 appliances, but Danaceau said he has not yet seen anyone grow VxRail beyond that limitation, which is set by VMware. The company engineered the product with EMC, before Dell's purchase of EMC and the EMC Federation companies, including VMware, was completed this fall.

VxRail is best suited for VMware shops because it doesn't support Microsoft Hyper-V and other hypervisors, and those users often look at the Dell XC series or Nutanix -- Dell sells about a third of Nutanix HCI, he noted. VxRail uses VMware vSphere, Virtual SAN is integrated into the kernel and Nutanix uses the virtual storage appliance, which Danaceau said uses more CPU.

VxRail clusters have 28 cores now, but Arthur Dogramacian, vice president of information service at an insurance company in the greater Boston area, said he has hosts with four sockets each now.

Nobody has given me a true benefit [to HCI], other than the fact that a major upgrade is not a huge expense.
Arthur Dogramacianvice president of information service, an insurance company in the greater Boston area

"So, I would go from four to eight in one node, but I don't know what that thing costs right now," he said. "I'm assuming it would be a lot."

He is comfortable with his server-SAN architecture with EMC VNX storage, but has been listening to pitches from several HCI vendors to hear what HCI could additionally offer. "Nobody has given me a true benefit, other than the fact that a major upgrade is not a huge expense," he said. He said he wonders whether five flash drives in HCI such as VxRail will give him more IOPS than he is getting from his 60 EMC SAN drives with Fast Cache -- though, "theoretically, it should," he said.

He said if he were to buy HCI, he would go with a major-name vendor -- he said his company generally goes by the age-old adage, "'Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.'"

Eyes on the HCI prize

Dell EMC has its eyes set on market-leader Nutanix, and VxRail is central to that plan. It has undergone several changes since it was first made available in February as a replacement for VSPEX Blue and VMware's EVO:RAIL, which relied on preconfigured and preinstalled servers with integrated networking and storage from hardware partners. At VMworld in late September, Jeremy Burton, chief marketing officer of Dell EMC, said VxRail had surpassed internal sales forecasts since its February release.

Nutanix's aforementioned OEM deal with Dell EMC will be complicated by the Dell-EMC merger, as Nutanix directly competes with VxRail and other parts of the VMware "integrated system strategy," according to the recently released Magic Quadrant from analyst firm Gartner.

While VxRail uses Quanta Computer Inc. for its servers today, Gartner's Magic Quadrant report noted that VxRail "will adopt Dell compute nodes in the near future," and it has committed to support mixed configurations of Dell and Quanta nodes.

VxRail is in "version one" right now, and some of the planned updates are "major features," said Matt LeBlanc, a former worldwide master architect at hyper-converged vendor SimpliVity Corp., who was listening to Danaceau's presentation.

Most hyper-converged infrastructure vendors are going after users with traditional server-SAN architecture, like Dogramacian is using, and SimpliVity is winning many of those small and medium-sized business users who don't want to have somebody managing servers and storage that requires "a litany of EMC certifications."

In some cases, hyper-converged vendors may not be effectively explaining to IT pros the advantages of moving to HCI from traditional or commodity storage, LeBlanc suggested.

"There is 'good enough,' and that may be the thing that the hyper-converged market is failing to address," he said.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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