Digital Research, Microsoft, Apple ... is Nutanix next on that list?

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks June 29, 2017
When it comes to creating a ubiquitous, all-embracing cloud services environment, the news from this week’s Nutanix Next conference sounds like `yes’

sudeesh nair
Sudeesh Nair, Nutanix

When push comes to shove, it has to be said that Nutanix is aiming high with its collection of new announcements at its .Next conference this week in Washington, DC. It has pulled together some of the stellar names of the cloud and enterprise systems worlds, including Amazon AWS and brand new partner, Google, to add to its recent partner additions such as IBM, Cisco and HP. But it has pulled them together with a plan.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Nutanix is set on creating the unifying environment that pulls on-premise, private cloud, public cloud and whatever level of hybrid cloud a user wants into a single, common environment.

The parallel that comes to mind is the way that Microsoft, first with MS-DOS and then Windows, provided the common ground on which any PC application could sensibly be expected to run on any suitable hardware. And when that question was put to Nutanix President, Sudheesh Nair, in Washington he acknowledged the parallel readily.

In fact he takes that model to a more recent example – Apple and the way it sells iCloud services. This does make the future a gamble for the company, because its biggest partners are likely to discover that Nutanix becomes the gatekeeper of their own future success.

Differentiation vs commonality

It is a feature of the IT industry that it loves to maintain differentiation between the players, on the pretext of providing customers with choices. But as Microsoft proved all those years ago – and arguably Digital Research in the earliest days of microcomputers, with its CP/M operating system – those customers actually want a high degree of commonality and ubiquity in the systems they use so that they can provide their customers with the differentiation and choice.

This applies in spades when it comes to cloud-delivered services, something that Nutanix has seen and moved towards for some time, even if it publicly declined to acknowledge the fact for several years. But the announcements made in Washington pull together as its pitch at providing the common operating environment for all types of cloud operations. And the word is emphasized because the concept of cloud operations can now officially encompass everything from legacy on premise applications to fully cloud-based and edge-operated environments.

That pitch at providing a common, ubiquitous environment could give users that common ground on which to build out services in much the same way that MS-DOS allowed them to buy PCs – lots of them – and run the applications they needed, where they needed them. They got to choose what was appropriate to their needs.

But providing that commonality must, in the same way MS-DOS and Windows impacted the PC business, spread to the providers of the base cloud services – the likes of Azure, AWS and Google. Over time they may well find themselves being pushed back to providing resource only. That will leave them – as with the PC industry before it – pushed towards competing on price alone.  Nutanix will in that case be the arbiter of available services, for it will be that environment users will be working with, not the cloud service providers.

It is like with Apple and iCloud. It never asks you whether you would like cloud services, it asks you whether you want unlimited music. The applications consume cloud services, but the users never need to think about it. We think there is an opportunity for us to bring an architecture like that to enterprise customers.

Data center, cloud and edge

The approach adopted by the company comes in three different steps. First is the core data center, which is what the company has already done in the areas of hyperconverged systems and a software defined environment. To Nair this looks a bit like AWS in the data center. Then there is the distributed cloud, which includes the tools for distributed data center management the company has built out over the last two years. Finally comes what the company calls the Intelligent Edge. He doesn’t see this as a pitch to add value to the real edge such as IoT sensors, cameras and the like. But one level back there starts to appear the need for high-end data management capabilities.

The plan therefore has been to create a lighter version of the same core operating system to operate across all three of these areas. The importance of this is that, for now at least, applications written for a data center environment will not run out at the edge unless they are refactored, which can then be a significant engineering problem. And much of that difference is not going to disappear overnight so the company has introduced Xi to be a key part of the bridge between them.

This is our own public cloud space, and we have multiple datacentres in place already. But we know we cannot out-Amazon Amazon. What we are trying to do is deliver public cloud-based services for enterprise customer in a true hybrid fashion.

This will, essentially be packaged services that most users are likely to require. The first example of this will be Disaster Recovery (DRaaS) and, in that same mode as with Apple, every service that can exploit Xi will be enabled. Users will get DR – and other services as they follow – without having to be directly involved with their provision.

This will all be managed through the Prism management tools. If a user toggles the switch for Xi they will get all available services with little or any further interventions on their part. There could be some options available – as with DR – on the type of recovery required, such as backing up datafiles through to running remotely while remediation occurs, but that is on the basis of what service level the customer wants to pay for.

This is where the partnership with Google comes in, for it will allow us to scale the services much faster. But this is how we want hybrid cloud to be, 100% invisible.

Calm and multi-cloud

To help manage the movement of applications and data Nutanix acquired Calm last year, and used its conference to announce the general availability of Nutanix Calm as part of its overall plan. This will work inside Prism to provide an automation and orchestration tool that can understand the use cases on the Nutanix environment but will also provision and manage onto cloud services. And these can be not only the services available from the three major service providers but also, where it may be required, more specialized services provided by organisations such as the managed service provider (MSP) community.

This is what Nutanix is calling `multi-cloud’, and the goal is to provide an environment where machine learning and automation are key to the deployment and management processes.

The application decides, through APIs. Last Friday you ran this app, the Friday before you ran this app, so chances are this Friday you will run this app. But last Friday you didn’t have enough memory, yet there is a node with available memory so the app is re-provisioned to that. So the plan is to deliver an automation process through Calm and through Prism. This is the next arc of this company into the multi-cloud world.

Nair acknowledges that this marks a change for the company away from being a hardware centric business. This is based on its long commitment to both produce its own hardware appliances and apply quite rigid specification criteria on its OEM partners.

But we maintain our high level of respect for the hardware. If you are running major business applications like SAP users need to be sure of the reliability and integrity of the hardware. You can’t do that just with software. So we have had to make sure nothing was left to chance on hardware. Now we have broadened it with our partners, including IBM with the Power architecture, and have tooled most of the error detection and correctional hardware. This has allowed us to be more free on hardware choice.

In addition the company introduced a software-only Community Edition for download, and has learned much from that on the subject of greater hardware agnostics. From this background Nair says that the company has now completely rewritten the stack.

So the next stage is to make sure that we get this first stage right before we launch into adding new services to the DRaaS introduced today. The work ahead of us is enough, and the one thing we learned early on is that if you are trying to do something new we should not try and do everything at once.

My take

Is this an over-the-top reaction to what Nutanix has announced in Washington? Possibly, but the parallels seem clear. The cloud has shown what consumer users react to – the provision of services specifically targeted to their day-to-day lives not their technological understanding. And Apple has done extremely well out of it. But that success, in part at least, has been down to the fact that little existed before it to influence customer thinking.

With enterprise users the opposite is true, and has been one of the key hindrances to the real uptake of cloud services – that and the need for every vendor to be different from every other vendor. That, of course, is the route to locked in customers and the antithesis of all that cloud stands for. But Nutanix is pitching at bridging all those gaps, and if it succeeds it could, like Microsoft before it, become the glue across all types of cloud and the system to which all applications are written to work with.