Hyperconvergence At The Rack Level: Dell EMC Launches Innovative New Solution

I have been thinking quite a bit recently about Dell EMC and its approach to converged infrastructure. This has been triggered by both an organizational change at Dell, and the opportunity I’ve had to take a deep look at the new Dell EMC VxBlock 1000 converged infrastructure solution. I wanted to go ahead and share a few of my thoughts on the subject.

A significant restructuring

In late January of this year, Dell took the product portfolio handled by its Converged Platforms and Solutions Division (CPSD) and disbursed it across its server, storage, and networking divisions. Prior to this organizational shift, CPSD had the ultimate responsibility for building and delivering Dell’s converged infrastructure (CI) and hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) products.

While there are undoubtedly many factors that drive a reorganization of this significance, it does send a few clear signals about how Dell perceives the converged infrastructure market.  Converged infrastructure, in all of its forms, is now firmly integrated into the DNA of each of the product groups at Dell. This supports the view that CI and HCI are no longer an emergent set of technologies needing to be nurtured, but rather a maturing set of capabilities that add value to Dell’s broad portfolio of data center products. It’s a smart and forward-looking move for Dell.

In mid-February, Dell launched the Dell EMC VxBlock 1000 series of converged infrastructure solutions. The VxBlock 1000 architecture provides an innovative solution to some of the existing concerns about deploying and maintaining converged infrastructure. This release is a further demonstration of how Dell is evolving the conversation around convergence. I’ll talk more about that below.
The CI and HCI Market
Whether you look at CI or HCI, Dell is winning—and winning big. IDC’s latest market share numbers show Dell holding nearly 54% of the HCI market and roughly 49% of the CI market.  That’s an incredible position to hold, especially if you look at it relative to their competitors in each of these markets.
The number two player in the HCI space is Nutanix, with a respectable 30.4% share of the market and a larger footprint than the numbers suggest. Nutanix has strong partner sell-through relationships, with Dell itself selling a significant number of its Dell EMC XC Servers with Nutanix software installed. Nutanix also has a growing relationship with IBM, providing Nutanix HCI software to IBM’s Power servers. Nutanix is an innovator in the HCI space, and I don’t see that changing for the foreseeable future.

The number two player in the overall converged infrastructure market is the combination of Cisco Systems and NetApp, with nearly 34% share. Like Nutanix in the HCI space, Cisco has a much larger footprint in the CI world than published share numbers indicate. Cisco is a key partner with seemingly everyone. Its NetApp partnership for converged infrastructure brings Cisco’s server technology into play. Additionally, Cisco has an emerging relationship with Pure Storage, providing UCS technology as part of Pure’s CI offering. Cisco Systems is a foundational player in converged solutions and isn’t going anywhere in this space. It’s also worth noting that the company is integral to Dell’s CI solutions.

Hewlett-Packard Enterprise is a different story. HPE participates in both the CI and HCI markets, but not as a dominant player; it maintains less than 5% share in HCI, and just a slightly stronger 10% share in the overall converged infrastructure market. There are few reasons for HPE’s lagging position in the HCI market. The HPE HCI solution, based on products acquired with its Simplivity acquisition in January of last year, isn’t as feature rich or mature as its competition. Compounding the feature deficit, the Simplivity products are not well-integrated into HPE’s overall portfolio.

This is likely a short-term problem for HPE—it has the resources and the aggressive new leadership needed to change this. Layering HCI atop either its Nimble or 3Par technology and integrating InfoSight predictive analytics into the solution could yield a very interesting product (especially given Dell’s lack of an integrated analytics offering on par with InfoSight). I expect HPE will make major moves in HCI, but these changes will take time. HPE HCI solutions won’t be a threat to Dell or Nutanix in 2018, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that changes heading into next year.

Some notes on HCI

Hyper-converged infrastructure has its place, but that place is very often not in the datacenter. With its appliance-like approach to integrating networking, storage, and compute into a single package, HCI is an attractive solution for workloads that are well-contained. HCI has very strong adoption in VDI remote desktop deployments, for example, where the application has limited scalability needs and provides a very predictable resource consumption model. HCI is also heavily targeted at small office and branch office deployments, where ease of installation and administration are key selling factors.

Where HCI falters in the data center (and where converged infrastructure excels), is in the ability to take the HCI appliance-like approach to deployment and manageability and scale the various components independently. HCI solutions tend to offer constrained sets of resources (storage, compute, and networking), which scale in tandem to modest limits. HCI solutions also generally limit choices of which products are integrated into the deployed solution. CI, on the other hand, allows IT to choose storage, networking, and compute that maps to the workloads that will ultimately be targeted to the solution. The magic of CI is not in packaging but in its simplicity of deployment and manageability.

Introducing the Dell EMC VxBlock 1000
This brings us to the new offering. Dell recognizes both the benefits and limitations of HCI and CI, and is driving rapidly into a very interesting middle space. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the just-introduced Dell EMC VxBlock 1000 CI rack-scale solution. The Dell EMCD VxBlock 1000 is an impressive display of flexible convergence technology. It’s a converged infrastructure product, but one that deploys like an HCI appliance. The VxBlock 1000 is a rack-scale CI product, built into a smart rack and delivered as a single piece, which simply drops into a data center. It’s managed as a single system—even down to the level of firmware updates—through a centralized management infrastructure that Dell calls “AMP-VX”.
A major strength of the VxBlock 1000 is the flexibility to configure the system for the target workload. The product comes in a variety of flavors, all of which leverage the strengths of Dell EMC’s storage technology and Cisco Systems’ UCS offerings. Customers can choose from a broad range of storage options: Dell’s Unity, VMAX, XtremeIO, or Isilon Gen 6 all-flash storage arrays. On the compute side, both Cisco UCS B-Series blade server and Cisco UCS C-Series rack server configurations are available. Storage and compute can be scaled independently as needed, providing the flexibility to deploy a CI solution targeted towards nearly anything—from general workloads to mission-critical applications, to transactional processing and analytics.
Concluding thoughts

HCI and CI are driving new paradigms of managing and deploying workloads in the datacenter.  It’s no longer a conversation about choosing hardware; it’s about crafting a flexible solution that can be dropped in, quickly deployed, and managed as a whole. There’s no question that Dell is the leader in the converged technology space, but the VxBlock 1000 shows that the company isn’t content to just coast on its successes. It has been exciting to witness the rapid evolution of convergence technology and see how aggressively Dell has managed to integrate EMC and deliver innovation. Packaging a converged infrastructure product as a turn-key rack-scale solution drives tremendous benefit for IT. Deployment costs drop. Operational efficiencies rise. Manageability becomes simple. This VxBlock 1000 is a strong evolutionary step forward in the world of converged infrastructure, and I look forward to seeing the market reaction.