Nutanix details vision as an enterprise infrastructure platform

Kurt Marko Profile picture for user kmarko June 24, 2016
Nutanix .NEXT Conference highlights its evolution from hyperconverged products to private cloud enabler

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You wouldn't guess it from the company's delayed and seemingly dormant IPO, but Nutanix is on a roll: look no further than the enthusiasm from customers, technology partners and resellers pervading its .NEXT event this week.

Like most technology vendors these days, Nutanix sponsors an annual conference to showcase new products, hint at its technology roadmap, educate/propagandize users and analysts and schmooze big customers. Unlike most tech dog and pony shows, .NEXT was refreshing for the lack of over scripted messaging, competitor pot shots and evangelical recitals of a technology industry worldview that just so happens to have the company at the center of a new IT universe.

.NEXT as a conference typified a company working through growing pains: things were occasionally disorganized, sessions weren’t always on time and rooms often ran out of seats, but it's a good problem to have. It's what happens when you had under 1,000 attendees at your first show, planned for 2,000 and ended up closer to 3,000.

Triple digit growth at the conference mirrors the company's financial performance, at least on the top line. An updated SEC filing that reflects business through April shows Nutanix revenue growing at over 80% over the same nine-month period last year.

Unfortunately, at nearly 70%, its cost of revenue and operating expenses grew almost as fast, meaning that Nutanix is still leaking cash like a sieve. Of course, enthusiastic customers, a sizable war chest (almost $200 million in cash and receivables) and visionary management focused on the long term are a combination no less than Amazon used as a path to market dominance. Indeed, as Bezos and company demonstrated, burning money is sometimes the best strategy.

Nutanix as the foundation for enterprise clouds

Amazon is an apt analogy since it was repeatedly cited as the company Nutanix executives admire. Indeed, Nutanix wants to simultaneously emulate, challenge and cooperate with Amazon: emulate by having a long-term, customer-focused vision, challenge by providing a buyable, not rentable enterprise cloud application platform and cooperate with by making it easy for Nutanix customers to deploy and manage workloads on both environments.

Nutanix originated as a way to use highly dense hardware, clever software and VMware's hypervisor to build network storage appliances that were cheaper, more scalable and easier to use than traditional big iron SAN arrays. What started as a storage platform built on standard server components has logically (given the increasing power of Intel CPUs) and inevitably evolved into a general purpose engine for running virtualized systems.

The .NEXT step as it were, evolves the Nutanix hardware/software stack into a flexible private cloud platform. Indeed, by embracing AWS-like programmability and exposing more and more infrastructure features to management and monitoring via RESTful APIs, Nutanix is on the way to being the first and most broadly deployed example of so-called composable, software-defined infrastructure.

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. As I wrote earlier this year,

The significance of the competition over hyper-converged is less about the hardware sales and more about the platform. VCE wants to serve VMware customers and keep them bound to its virtualization-cum-cloud stack. While Nutanix addresses those same VMware users, it is less concerned about keeping them locked into a specific cloud stack as long as they continue using Nutanix platform. Whether the workload runs in vSphere/vCloud, Xen, KVM (OpenStack), or potentially even Azure Stack is less material.

Platform programmability

With announcements at .NEXT, the Nutanix software platform is about to get significantly wider via support for bare metal servers, containers and two cloud stacks, OpenStack and Azure via the Microsoft Cloud Platform. I’ll have more technical details next week, but the overall theme is that Nutanix is breaking out of its niche in scale out storage and vSphere workloads to become a destination for both legacy and cloud-native applications by providing greater choice in the underlying software environment while retaining the appliance-like simplicity of its Prism management software.

Another element of the Nutanix platform strategy is the zealous use of RESTful APIs to access, customize and automate the underlying infrastructure. Creative use of the APIs was on display at one session for applications as diverse as optimized workload placement and data management and compliance.

VMturbo discussed how it uses Nutanix APIs to dynamically monitor, analyze and allocate workloads on a cluster to improve performance, scalability and infrastructure usage. Meanwhile, Data Gravity uses the same Nutanix programmability to enforce data usage and compliance policies, identify and archive inactive information and audit data usage and capacity consumption using a variety of metadata. One application for managing workloads, the other for data, but each enabled by an extensible, programmable platform.

My Take

Nutanix is evolving its product into what it hopes will become the premier hardware and management infrastructure for all enterprise applications, whether next-generation designs using cloud services, containers and micro-VMs or legacy software needing a traditional server, OS and storage. Successfully achieving this goal will depend on several factors:

  • Can Nutanix continue to deliver a simple, efficient appliance-like experience even as the product adds more complex features?
  • Can the company navigate new competitive issues its growing feature set (and ambitions) will inevitably create with ecosystems partners like Dell-EMC, Microsoft, VMware and application providers?
  • What is its future involvement in hardware specification, design and sales? Does Nutanix evolve into a pure software company like Microsoft and VMware, relying on partners for hardware development and support?
  • How effectively does Nutanix fill the integration and support gaps between its infrastructure platform and higher level IaaS/PaaS software like Azure Stack, OpenStack, Cloud Foundry and others?

Most broadly, Nutanix must develop a coherent hybrid cloud strategy that describes how its private cloud platform accommodates and more importantly facilitates public cloud usage by customers.

It’s a big list for a growing company that started as a provider of glorified NAS boxes, but as the .NEXT conference demonstrated Nutanix management thinks big, strategically and for the long term. With both the IT infrastructure and vendor landscape is such flux, the coming year will provide ample fodder for Nutanix’s next .NEXT agenda.

Image credit - via the author from the event

Disclosure - Nutanix funded most of the author's travel and expense for attending .NEXT

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