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Red Hat's software-only HCI system seeks hardware flexibility

Red Hat finally stepped into the hyper-converged arena with an all-open-source, software-only offering. But will corporate users want to mix and match it with their own hardware?

Red Hat finally decided to jump into the hyper-converged market, but it's unclear if its arrival is fashionably late or missed the boat.

The company released its hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) bundle that is aimed directly at enterprise branch offices and other remote locations. The HCI system, called the Red Hat Hyper-Converged Infrastructure, takes a software-only approach that combines its Red Hat Virtualization software, Gluster Storage product, Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Ansible, which handles automated installation and configuration.

Industry observers have waited to see how a pure, open source HCI system from a top-tier vendor would fare against market leaders, such as Nutanix. Some believe the lack of a hardware component could relegate it to a niche market.

Larger companies with ample technical talent, especially those with an eye toward establishing a software-defined infrastructure, prefer to take a do-it-yourself approach by piecing together their own HCI platform, said Eric Sheppard, an analyst at IDC. So, a software-only offering, such as Red Hat's, allows them to mix and match with the server hardware of their choice to save costs and sidestep vendor lock-in.

"[Red Hat Hyper-Converged Infrastructure] isn't going to ramp up the level of excitement the way Dell or Nutanix has in this market," said one analyst. "But they have at their disposal all the existing software pieces to put together an HCI solution, except for the hardware, so why not?"

So far, most of the market action has swirled around HCI products that weave together hardware and software components. Outside of those large DIY enterprises, however, the richness of the opportunity for software-only products has been difficult to gauge.

"If you look at midmarket users, for instance, they are more about operation simplicity and solutions that are prepackaged," Sheppard said.

This rising interest in hyper-converged software is not just among users, but increasingly among HCI vendors, said Sean Murphy, a Red Hat principal product manager. Market leader Nutanix, for example, recently disclosed a software-only version of its HCI stack.

The delivery of the hyper-converged infrastructure doesn't mean Red Hat won't consider an HCI bundle that includes the hardware.

"We are engaged in a number of talks with server hardware vendors to find the right mix of configurations and potential commercial agreements for turnkey systems for those who want them," Murphy said.

Regardless of what the future holds for a software-only HCI system, the overall HCI market continues to flourish, according to recent numbers. IDC predicts revenues for hyper-converged systems will grow from $3.72 billion in 2017 to $7.48 billion in 2021.

Extend the Red Hat Stack

This latest HCI offering gives larger companies an easier way to extend the Red Hat stack beyond the data center, Red Hat executives said.

If you look at midmarket users, for instance, they are more about operation simplicity and solutions that are prepackaged.
Eric Sheppardanalyst at IDC

"Many users run [our] virtual stack in their data centers and want those capabilities out in their remote and branch offices," said Ross Turk, Red Hat's director of product marketing. "This product is essentially that same stack, but we hyper-converged it, so storage and compute components are running on the same server so it has a smaller footprint."

Red Hat officials said its customers showing the most interest in this HCI system reside in the banking, energy and retail sectors. It is in these markets that remote offices need the same speed and performance from infrastructure services as is required in their main offices, Red Hat officials said.

Remote offices also need a much smaller footprint, which Red Hat said the new offering provides by integrating compute and storage on a single server or small cluster of servers. This makes it possible to manage these distributed infrastructures centrally, eliminating the need for on-site IT admins.

The minimum requirement for the hyper-converged system is three servers, and users can upgrade in increments of three servers up to a maximum of nine. The decision to run the software on increments of three servers involves the underlying data protection model of its Gluster storage product, according to Murphy. At some point, Red Hat will give users the option of installing it on only one or two servers, he said.

"It has nothing to do with the architecture; it is just a matter of what was logistically pragmatic for us to do the testing in the window we had available to us," Murphy said.

The base price of the product which requires just three servers is $12,000, in addition to whatever server hardware users decide to purchase. Red Hat recommends two 6 processors cores with 64 GB of and up to 48 TB for a small deployment. And up to two 8 processor cores with 256 GB of and 80 TB of storage for large deployments.

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