It can seem strange to think of Nutanix – 10 years old this year and having pushed through the $1bn barrier in fiscal 2018 – as a start-up. But in many ways it still is, if only because much of its marketplace is still in start-up mode. Traditional three-tier infrastructure architectures are still the mainstay of many an enterprise data management environment, and the deployment of cloud services is still far from universal.
But now the company does stand on the cusp of a major transition from start-up to established company. The performance and cost benefits of hyper-converged architectures are increasingly accepted by users, so its market is no longer on the bleeding edge. It is now increasingly mainstream, which means the dynamics of the early adopter marketplace (where the users are experimenting at least as much as the vendors) no longer apply.
Evolving to meet that market dynamic and be ready to support it was the key underlying theme of this year’s .NEXT conference in Anaheim, California. CEO Dheeraj Pandey was in reflective mood in his introductory keynote address, looking back over its 10-year history and its goal of making its business so good at supporting its customers’ business objectives that it largely becomes 'invisible'.
The main announcements at the conference focused on the way the company plans to grow the cloud platform by providing a variety of widely used business tools that should shorten the track for both end users and the growing number of channel partners that will be needed to the build and deliver the services that the majority of end user businesses will be seeking. These are services such as comprehensive virtual desktop services and disaster recovery services, and a significant re-think of the place of VDI tools. These classics of the business tools genre are the first to be added to the Nutanix cloud platform.
The thinking behind this seems pretty straight forward:
- Most end user businesses will prefer to spend their investment Dollars on building up their business, not learning technologies. The cloud is an attractive prospect in that cause, except that in some ways it is even more complex than setting up a mid-range on-premise data center.
- With the best will in the world the big cloud service providers such as AWS could never afford to provide all the industry-specific support those many different users will need, leaving those users to face the task of doing it themselves.
- This opens up the market for specialist cloud service providers, the channel partners. They will combine their sector expertise and IP with the range of common business tools that broad-based cloud platforms - like the one Nutanix is building on top of its hyperconverged architecture – to build and deliver tightly targeted business solutions to individual user customers.
The one downside is the suspicion that many potential members of this channel partner community do not yet seem able to see their role as the bridge between end user businesses and the service providers. Though it may not seem that business CIOs should worry whether a community of apparent midddlemen have yet to gain a real understanding of the opportunities that might come their way from hyper-converged infrastructure and cloud service delivery, they really ought to.
It is both a physical and economic impossibility for the majority of cloud service providers to service and support the vast majority of potential business customers that are out there. The range of use cases is too diverse for any one company to understand and support all possible options. The alternative at the moment is that those customers are required to support themselves; are obliged, for example, to understand how to translate their business process needs into technology provisioning specifications.
There lies the principle cause of the over-specification and associated poor contract negotiations that has led users to over-provision cloud resources that are either needed only rarely (and can be accommodated by appropriate contract terms) or are simply not needed at all.
Have some more tools
Whether it is these channel partners or the end user businesses themselves that provide the development, provisioning and management capabilities for the increasing use of cloud services, the Nutanix goal is now to aim at providing as many of the tools and services they will need to realise their individual business goals. The aim it to provide a hybrid cloud platform that allows users to build services and applications that span on-premise, private cloud and public cloud in the form of AWS and other service providers, often moving dynamically between them as business requirements demand.
This can be seen in the latest development of Xi Frame, the company’s Virtual Desktop system. This started life as a cloud-only tool because that is the obvious place for delivering VDI capabilities. But the realities of hybrid clouds mean that it can also be used in on-premise applications, and indeed dynamically switched between these environments. It will now be able to deliver secure desktops from a customer's own data center, so that IT teams can select the right environment for an individual user’s needs at any time, such as location being worked in or the level of security or sensitivity being applied to a task.
As Greg Smith, Nutanix VP of Product Marketing observes, the challenge for an administrator is from where are those desktops to b delivered? He says:
I can stand up that Windows desktop, and associated applications, in a public cloud, or I can do it in my data center. And the key factor is I have the ability to do this from a single management console. So some users can be serviced out of AWS while other users can get their desktop from a Nutanix or HPE data center environment.
Nikola Bozinovic, General Manager, Desktop Services at Nutanix, describes the new developments with Xi Frame as a complement to putting VDI onto a hyperconverged infrastructure, which speeded up what he referred to as `the mechanical part’ of VDI operations. Now the software side of the equation has also been speeded up, and given far greater capabilities in terms of the complexity of the applications capable of being run:
There are two things here. One is how users can connect clusters and turn them into a VDI resource in matter of 90 seconds, and they run in the cloud, the same way Salesforce runs in the cloud.
He sees this development as significantly changing the potential of VDI, bringing together the inherent security advantages of having all processes and data run in controlled and defended server environments, either on-premise or in the cloud, with the ability to deliver via the cloud and WiFi services far greater applications complexity.
For example, he uses the now infamous video clip of a Starbucks coffee cup appearing in a scene from Game of Thrones to demonstrate its ability to run video editing technologies, by removing said item from the screen in real time.
Such capabilities, when coupled with the coming of 5G communications resources now, he suggests, holds out the prospect of a whole new range of applications and use cases for VDI. A longer exposition of his thoughts on VDI’s future potential and impact will follow shortly.
The other main development that fills out a significant hole in the baseline of services that any Platform as a Service offering needs is the availability of secondary storage, coupled with Disaster Recovery (DR) capabilities. Here is the two-pronged basis needed by any business looking to ensure reliable and effective delivery of their products or services to their customers: being ready and able to recover from service failures of any kind, and the ability to build and maintain integrated data storage that provides one version of the truth about the business, even if applications insist on generating their own databases and data storage environments.
Known as Nutanix Mine, this is based on a new, open platform that will allow all of the company’s current and future storage tools partners to Integrate their tools in as Xi-native offerings. The development has been a joint effort between Nutanix and storage systems vendor, Veeam, and a handful of other storage partners, such as Commvault, have already signed up as part of this service.
Smith sees this addressing what he calls a severe customer pain point - the cost and complexity of managing separate systems to manage and recover data. He claims it is the first time data center managers will be able to use a single pane of glass to manage the primary storage as part of their API infrastructure, as well as a secondary storage for data backup:
So we've we've sort of broken down another silo in the data center. That silo is secondary storage of data back making it part of a single solution, to make it easier to deploy and to manage.
Because it is using open APIs, he also claimed it will be a straight forward matter for other secondary storage and DR vendors to integrate their tools into the environment. With many of the major business management applications suites now certified to run on Nutanix, this opens up new possibilities for both end users and the channel partners to extend their current storage management environments to the Nutanix marketplace.
The growing need for users to be able to move data, be that between cloud services, or between on-premise resources and a cloud service, has also prompted Nutanix to grasp the nettle of providing tools that can accommodate this. The result is know as Buckets, which has the rather obvious connotation of a container with rather more capacity and strength.
Buckets, therefore, are the tools to use when wanting to move active data, together with everything associated with it, to a new location. This can be because the workload has become more sensitive or security conscious, or it needs to meet changed regulatory requirements such as data sovereignty issues, or a faster, more powerful environment, or can be downgraded to a more cost-effective service.
In all such cases, there is the need not only to move the data, but also the VMs and the full resource requirements and setup information.
As the potential for the channel grows in the development a delivery of targeted cloud services for end users grows, so the need for a rich and comprehensive platform from which they can be delivered becomes increasingly important. Users will be looking to run multiple cloud services, each providing part of their business requirements and, therefore, often collaborating. They will also need to move applications and services between cloud services, and between clouds and on-premise. What will be important here is that all parts of the loosely coupled platform will need to be common, or as close to it as possible. If both service creators and delivers, and service consumers, have as much platform commonality between as possible the easier it will be to build, scale and use the capabilities and services that businesses will need without having to think too much about the `how?’. This is certainly where Nutanix is now circling its growing range of wagons.