Nutanix completes pivot from scale-out storage services to all-purpose enterprise platform

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko June 28, 2016
A series of announcements at Nutanix annual customer event detail ways it plans to take on the role of traditional servers

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It’s one thing to have a vision and strategy -- most technology executives are quite skilled at pontificating grand plans for the future -- but quite another to executive it with demonstrable products. As I detailed last week, Nutanix used its annual .NEXT Conference customer event to outline its objective to become the premier platform for enterprise infrastructure, however company officials spent considerable time discussing and demonstrating a host of new products that together show how it pulls this off. As I explained, the company is pivoting from its niche as a VMware appliance:

Although Nutanix was built on a VMware foundation, the company has grown to become a hypervisor-agnostic system that works with any low-level software: indeed, the company’s open source-based hypervisor, Acropolis, epitomizes its ecumenism.

Like others in the red-hot hyperconverged infrastructure market, Nutanix started with VMware’s ubiquitous virtualization software, but wisely didn’t go head-to-head with the status quo in enterprise data centers of traditional servers (from much larger competitors like Dell, HP and IBM) running vSphere (also a large competitor cum technology partner) connected to a SAN array (again from formidable competitors like EMC or the aforementioned server vendors). Instead, Nutanix emphasized its appliance simplicity, use as a scale-out storage system and cheaper alternative to expensive, monolithic SAN hardware and niche applications like VDI.

Avoiding a frontal assault on established vendors allowed Nutanix time to hone the technology, build its base of customers and partners and assess how cloud services would mature and be incorporated by enterprise IT in hybrid architectures. But given the components in a Nutanix system that made them effectively a densely packed server, the positioning always seemed like a tactical marketing maneuver, not long term strategy. There was no reason Nutanix systems couldn't be used for all manner of enterprise applications, including the most critical databases or all new cloud-native designs and at .NEXT the company unveiled products that will make that happen. A Nutanix assault on entrenched data center suppliers appears imminent.

From VMware Appliance to Enterprise Application Platform

In the last six months, the fullness of Nutanix’s strategy has become apparent, starting with the S-1 for a still-planned IPO in which it wrote:

Our mission is to deliver invisible infrastructure and elevate IT to focus on the applications and services that power their business. … We provide a leading next-generation enterprise cloud platform that converges traditional silos of server, virtualization and storage into one integrated solution and can also connect to public cloud services.

The S-1 goes on to nail the growing chasm between the way cloud services and enterprises build their infrastructure, correctly highlighting the technical, operational and financial benefits of the former,

Leading Internet companies and public cloud providers have embraced convergence and distributed systems and implemented web-scale technologies in their proprietary operating environments. They took these steps because traditional siloed IT infrastructure architectures failed to deliver the levels of scalability and operational efficiency that their dynamic businesses required. … To address these challenges, we have pioneered a converged web-scale architecture that can be easily deployed by organizations of any size to address the limitations of traditional IT infrastructure.

At last week’s .NEXT conference, Nutanix announced several products and enhancements that bolster its plan to become the foundation for next-generation IT infrastructure.

Key enhancements

With last year’s announcement of the KVM-based (and hence, vastly less expensive) Acropolis hypervisor, Nutanix expanded the type of applications and usage scenarios suitable for its platform. At .NEXT, the company significantly extended the kind of workloads and application designs it can handle.

  • Acropolis Block Services (ABS): A major limitation of virtual infrastructure is that some legacy applications, particularly large, transactional databases like Oracle RAC or DB2, weren't designed for, nor perform well when sharing system resources. With block services, Nutanix enables applications to run on bare metal servers yet still access its distributed storage fabric with features like deduplication, compression, tiering, snapshots, clones and erasure coding via iSCSI. ABS compliments the announcement earlier this year of Acropolis File Services that exposes Nutanix storage as a standard NAS for file-based workloads.
  • Acropolis Container Services (ACS): The hottest concept in application design is containerization, which represents a much more efficient way of carving up server resources than the full guest OS of a VM. AWS, Azure and Google Cloud have all developed container services and software for managing system clusters for running containerized workloads. The speed and efficiency of instantiating new containers encourage developers to carve up previously monolithic applications into a suite of microservices that can be mashed up and reused to suit new application requirements. Any enterprise application expecting to serve as a private cloud alternative to public cloud services must have the ability to run, manage and automate containerized workloads. Nutanix's new Docker-compliant ACS not only makes it a viable container host, but provides an critical new capability many container managers don't provide, persistent storage, by integrating with its storage fabric.
  • All-flash nodes: Early hyperconverged products, Nutanix included, used disk storage or hybrids with flash as a fast cache accelerator. With terabyte-scale flash drives and steadily declining prices, all flash arrays are both viable and preferable for I/O-bound workloads. Nutanix joins the AFA party by introducing flash-only configurations across its hardware portfolio at "a modest price premium" over current hybrid products.

Nutanix made two announcements that move it out from VMware's shadow by supporting alternative cloud stacks.

  • Microsoft Cloud Platform (CPS): A joint development project, CPS integrates Microsoft's virtualization suite including Hyper-V, System Center, and Windows Azure Pack with Nutanix hardware and Prism management software into a ready-to-run appliance. CPS is clearly a stopgap product designed to win business at Window-centric IT shops until Microsoft's full private cloud, Azure Stack is ready to ship. Although I pressed both Nutanix and Microsoft executives on plans and availability, they weren't about to pre-announce anything, although it's clear a Nutanix-powered Azure private cloud will be a reality next year. For more on Azure Stack, see my coverage here and here.
  • OpenStack drivers: While not a turnkey, integrated product like Microsoft CPS, by releasing OpenStack drivers, Nutanix enables its platform to be the server and storage platform for OpenStack deployments. This Nutanix blog provides a good description of the relationship of OpenStack and Nutanix management and control services, but in essence, Nutanix provides the compute and virtual network infrastructure, while OpenStack layers on application, orchestration, measurement and security services.

My take

Individually, each Nutanix announcement is a logical product extension, particularly in light of the Acropolis hypervisor released last year and which execs say is already used by 15% of its customers. Collectively, the announcements show Nutanix building out the software infrastructure to allow its hardware to become a general purpose platform suitable for whatever enterprise IT wants to throw at it.

Although superficially, Nutanix's products seem little more than a clever packaging exercise of standard Intel servers, however its storage fabric and Prism management software transform Nutanix boxes into an integrated system built that can be incrementally expanded by adding hardware Legos of various sizes and capabilities. Indeed, this combination of hardware modularity and scale out design paired with a unified management interface makes Nutanix a compelling foundation for enterprise infrastructure.

By adding support for both legacy workloads like Oracle RAC and emergent cloud-native applications, Nutanix is breaking out of its hyperconverged niche on two fronts. It's an aggressive strategy, but the right one. Enterprises building cloud era internal data centers need systems that mirror the hyperscale modularity and central manageability of the big cloud public cloud builders.

The trick will be not compromising Nutanix's appliance simplicity as it adds platform complexity. Doing so will undoubtedly require compromises, but given CEO Dheeraj Panday's expressed commitment to delivering an AWS-like experience for internal infrastructure, it's a balancing act I expect Nutanix to execute.

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