IT organizations give nod to a free hypervisor option

The lure of free can be the deciding factor for organizations evaluating which hypervisor best fits their needs, and help them escape mounting annual license fees.

FOXBOROUGH, MA -- For IT organizations, when the price is free and it does what they want, they're attracted to free.

That is the thinking behind what Nutanix Inc. says is a growing number of users that are moving workloads to its Acropolis Hypervisor (AHV). The free hypervisor is KVM-based and comes with its hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) products, enticing users with the prospect of avoiding the burden of VMware vSphere licensing costs.

As part of a hardware refresh, Brightcove Inc., headquartered in Boston, replaced its server-storage area network (SAN) architecture with Nutanix HCI systems about a year ago. Josh Gilmour, director of IT operations, also wanted to move away from XenServer, for which administrators must know Secure Socket Shell (SSH) and do command-line work or have a Windows client.

Instead he wanted a hypervisor with a web-based user interface and drop-down menus for admins to spin up instances -- something he could get with AHV and vSphere.

"We were looking at the ESXi path at first but licensing is pretty costly," he said at a Nutanix event here this week. Meanwhile, AHV already came with the Nutanix gear at no additional cost -- and ultimately that was the deciding factor.

"The functionality was there for what we wanted to do," he said. "As long as it can run Linux and a Windows domain controller, from an internal IT perspective, it works for us."

Hardware refreshes at The Hotchkiss School, a college preparatory school in Lakeville, Conn., also have spurred a shift from VMware to AHV, said Kevin Warenda, director of information technology services, who also attended the Nutanix event. The school still supports and backs up its legacy hardware, a large IBM traditional structure, and "the only way to do that is to use the features of VMware," he said. But a proof-of-concept for a 500-user virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) deployment is running on AHV, largely to avoid paying VMware license fees.

"As soon as that IBM structure hits the end of life, we will be gone [from VMware]," he said.

IT's mantra: Make it work, costs less

For most businesses -- say, those that run on no more than a rack of hardware and 1,000 virtual machines (VMs) -- the feature set offered by VMware exceeds their needs, said Brian Booher, a network engineering and data center design consultant from Bar Harbor, Maine.

"Multinational corporations with gigantic data centers will use vSphere's features," he said, "but a large portion of the market doesn't need that and probably doesn't want to pay for it."

VMware licenses are a sunk cost for customers, so immediately switching won't save them any money, said Paul Delory, a research director for data center infrastructure at Gartner. However, he anticipates a gradual shift over the next two to three years to other hypervisors as existing VMware licenses expire and are replaced. A lot of IT shops are exploring AHV, but relatively few have made the move in the United States, he said. There is "real growth," however, in all types of non-VMware hypervisors outside the U.S., especially in Asia, driven by the cost of VMware licenses.

Currently, 70% of Nutanix customers use VMware, 20% use AHV and 10% use Hyper-V, said Eric Johnson, a senior solutions architect at Nutanix. In addition to its own hypervisor, Nutanix also supports VMware and Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisors.

The Nutanix Asterix release this summer added a distributed resource scheduler (DRS) and affinity and anti-affinity rules, which puts it 90% on parity with VMware, Johnson said. Without DRS, users had to integrate with VMTurbo or similar vendors to move around VMs. AHV is fully integrated with Citrix and Windows applications including Microsoft Exchange and Sharepoint, and Nintendo and Kellogg's both run production Oracle workloads on top of AHV, Johnson said.

Some VMware shops tell Johnson that the company is not moving away from VMware and not to waste their time pitching AHV-- but later, when the conversation shifts to AWS, the customer doesn't know what the AWS hypervisor is. "It is just a component of the stack, you don't have to pay these crazy pricetags for it," he said.

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare in Kannapolis, N.C. is saving $60,000 annually avoiding vSphere licensing by running Citrix XenDesktop on AHV, and expects to see those savings grow to total $150,000 annually within three years as more workloads are moved off VMware and on to AHV. The company runs 230 VMs outside its VDI environment with 736 VDI users -- about a quarter of workloads are on AHV now, but everything runs on Nutanix hardware, including SQL, Exchange and a homegrown .NET application that is the company's "secret sauce," said Robert Edwards, Cardinal's IT infrastructure director.

Before settling on Nutanix, Edwards also considered HCI products from SimpliVity Corp. and EMC -- and the free hypervisor played a part in his decision. "We haven't made the full conversion to AHV as the hypervisor for everything," he said, "but there is no feature functionality inside ESXi that is a have-to-have for my business."

Do IT shops really care?

As Nutanix pushes its free hypervisor, VMware has doubled down on its platform with what it claims is continued growth for its VxRail HCI product that runs only on VMware.

"It is very opinionated," said Gil Shneorson, vice president and general manager for VxRail at Dell EMC. "You don't have to learn anything new and you don't have to have a new single pane of glass -- you already have one, it is called vCenter."

It is for VMware customers that want to replace their existing architecture with HCI without leaving the VMware environment, he said.

What I'm looking for is: can my business run on this and does the cost model make sense?
Robert EdwardsIT infrastructure director, Cardinal Innovations Healthcare

Users don't typically mix and match hypervisors and customers often ask about their options for other hypervisors, Shneorson said, but may not really want other options.

"I say, 'Do you really want other hypervisors?' And they say, 'No, but what if I did?'" he said.

For Cardinal's Edwards, though, there aren't any specific features and functionality in vSphere that are worth keeping workloads there.

"What I'm looking for is: can my business run on this and does the cost model make sense?" 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].

Next Steps

Is Nutanix's hypervisor an attack on VMware?

All about Acropolis's HCI software

Compare HCI vendors for VDI

Dig Deeper on Emerging IT workload types