The Server SAN market is pretty new but VMware and EMC have already started disrupting the market. Both VMware and EMC have entered the competition of hyper-converged infrastructures or more specifically the Server SAN market with purely software plays. VMware with an impressive solution called VSAN (not vSAN) built around their vSphere hypervisor solution. EMC has introduced a bare metal variant called ScaleIO. The market for Server SAN is getting crowded with existing appliance providers that include Scale and Nutanix. I’m wondering if the EMC and VMware software only plays will force appliance providers to follow suit.

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Introduction of Server SAN

First a little background on the concept of Server SAN (see Wikibon Server SAN Introduction) convergence. The idea is pretty straight forward. SAN’s at their core are a bunch of commodity servers with disk trays that provide shared storage via some high speed medium. The magic in enterprise SAN is providing scale, performance and reliability. This is where traditional SAN products have excelled over basic file servers. Server SANs take this idea and build the scale, reliability and performance into a software layer that can be installed on commodity x86 hardware. In addition to SAN features, these systems can be used to run hypervisor environments such as VMware vSphere or Hyper-V. The combination of compute and storage resources is a hyper-converged infrastructure.

SAN technology is hard

Creating a hyper-converged product is hard stuff. Simple solutions like VMware’s appliance based Virtual Storage Appliance (VSA) could offer basic SAN capability, but not at the scale required for most production workloads. Enter providers such as Nutanix. These companies took very specific x86 configurations and optimized their code to allow highly scalable solutions. This approach allowed for the creation and validation of the Server SAN architecture.

VMware has taken the idea a bit further by allowing organizations to select hardware from a more generalized pool. For example, if you have standardized on HP hardware for compute you could leverage your existing x86 servers and just add the needed storage and software. This is a compelling choice and leads to the question if “traditional” converged appliance providers need to consider offering software only versions of their product. Basically, bring your own compute and storage (BYOCS) option.

We are pretty early in the product cycles for the software only approach to storage. But, I believe the answer will not be based on compute only. I believe more weight will be put to the software defined storage capability that’s provided by the platform. One of the revolutionary concepts brought by VMware’s VSAN is storage profile policies. The tight integration with VMware’s virtualization platform allows administrators to set performance policies based on VMware’s or applications. Innovations such as this may be much more significant than any potential savings on hardware.

Time will tell

Appliance manufacturers have an argument for the ability to support hypervisors outside of VMware while adding similar profile capabilities to other platforms such as Hyper-V and KVM. This is where the ScaleIO solution puts pressure on the other side of the balloon. ScaleIO supports a multi-hypervisor approach. Stripping away the reliance of a particular hypervisor allows apples to apples comparison of software only solutions and appliances. I’m headed to Storage Field Day 5 next week and will be talking to vendors like Scale about the advantages of one approach over another.

Update 5/23/14

In this post, I tried to address the competition between a product such as VSAN and Nutanix. Both solutions fall into the Server-SAN product category. I believe I failed at my attempt to show how VSAN validates the software first sub-category in the market. VSAN decouples the SAN software from the Server SAN hardware. This means that you can basically roll your own Server SAN using your existing or new commodity parts. Solutions such as Nutanix tightly couple the hardware and Server SAN software which enables consistent performance and support across their product line. Yes, similar software solutions such as HP StoreVirtual have been on the market for some time. But, I’ve always viewed StoreVirtual’s software only option positioned as a test/dev environment solution. Something not meant for production applications. VMware is marketing VSAN as a production level solution that will compete against their parent company’s mid-tier storage arrays for example. From my view of the landscape no other software only Server SAN vendor is making this claim.

I’m standing by my statement that VSAN is disruptive to the Server SAN market leader Nutanix. To Han De Leenheer’s point below, yes VSAN is a direct result from VMware taking Nutanix seriously but it’s still a very competitive response. I believe it’s a strong enough response that it will force Nutanix to evaluate decoupling their SAN software from their hardware. Whenever you force your competitor to re-evaluate their product strategy it’s called being disruptive.

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EMC and VMware are disrupting Server SAN
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4 thoughts on “EMC and VMware are disrupting Server SAN

  • Pingback:EMC and VMware are disrupting Server SAN

  • May 21, 2014 at 2:35 pm
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    Hi Keith – Would you mind putting a link to some of the Wikibon research on Server SAN in the article? Great to see the term picking up, but your premise that the appliance/hyper-converged solutions are being “disrupted” by VMware and EMC doesn’t fit with our premise. Server SAN is an instantiation of the ongoing trends and solutions from EMC and VMware (plus Scale Computing, Nutanix and many others) are all the first generation of the solution; the disruption is to traditional arrays, not to a group of startups that are part of the trend.
    Cheers,
    Stu Miniman
    Wikibon.org

    Reply
    • May 21, 2014 at 3:14 pm
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      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Stu. I’ll gladly add a link to the Wikibon blog post you guys did a while back. The title of the post may be a little muddled. I don’t believe my concept is so different. From a macro perspective they are all positioned at the same part of the market. Collectively both are disrupting traditional SAN. From a micro perspective, the software first approach of VSAN is disruptive to the leading incumbent in this startup market (Nutanix). Maybe it’s my lack of vendor exposure but I’m not aware of software-first solutions that compete with Nutanix at the enterprise level.

      Reply
  • May 23, 2014 at 4:34 am
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    VMware is not ‘disrupting’ server based storage. They are merely validating a market shift of physical architecture. I think the disruption part is more to be put in Nutanix’ hands. If not for them there wouldn’t be so much pressure on VMware and others to succeed in this market segment.

    What is a distinctive difference is the use case scenario. VSAN, HP VSA, Maxta, Nexenta, … all play in the “build-your-own-datacenter” market segment where customers/integrators design a hardware architecture they will build to fit their needs perfectly. Even the VSAN-ready nodes will still have to be installed by someone other than the vendor.

    Nutanix, SimpliVity, ScaleComputing, Pivot3, … deliver datacenter-in-a-box appliances which is the plug and play architecture where you choose predefined models that kind of match your needs This are two distinctive customer sets. Nutanix opening their customers to the Software only model will make them the first player in both markets. BTW: nothing stops HP/DELL/Cisco to bring Nutanix-Ready-Nodes now …

    Final point: don’t confuse the logical management changes of storage (SDS) like profiles in VSAN with server based storage. They come together in this product but are two separate stories. The storage management changes of storage profiles, vVols or ViPR will play across server based storage and hardware based solutions like Nimble, SolidFire, … This is a logical architecture where server based storage is physical architecture.

    Do I need disclaimers if there are more than 2 or 3 vendors mentioned that have used my services before? :)

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