With EVO: RAIL, VMware turns VSAN into a franchise

VMware's EVO: RAIL allows hardware vendors to build hyper-converged appliances running VSAN and other VMware software.

SAN FRANCISCO -- VMware's latest step in its software-defined data center strategy consists of lining up converged infrastructure hardware partners.

VMworld 2014 opened with the launch of EVO: RAIL, which allows hardware vendors to build hyper-converged appliances running VMware's Virtual SAN (VSAN) software-defined storage.

EVO is short for evolution, and RAIL describes the 2U, four-node form factor. Hardware partners Dell, EMC, Fujitsu Ltd., Inspur Group Co. Ltd., Net One Systems Co. and Super Micro Computer Inc. have already signed on, although none will ship products until close to the end of the year.

RAIL is the first of a family of hyper-converged appliances, according to VMware VP of research and development Mornay Van Der Walt.

EVO: RAIL design

EVO: RAIL consists of VSAN, vSphere, vCenter Log Insight and the RAIL engine designed to simplify installment and customer deployment. All EVO: RAIL hardware appliances will have the same user interface and screens for creating and managing virtual machines (VMs), and for hardware, provisioning storage, and performing upgrades and patch management.

VMware has set uniform hardware parameters for its customers. The storage consists of three 1.2 TB SAS 10,000 rpm hard disk drives (HDDs) and a 400 GB solid-state drive (SSD) per node, which adds up to approximately 13 TB of usable HDD capacity and 1.6 TB SSD capacity for read caching and write buffering per appliance.

The networking includes two 10 Gigabit Ethernet connections and 100/1,000 network interface card per node, and a top-of-rack switch.

If one of four nodes fails on an appliance, the system will continue to run and spread data over the other three nodes. EVO: RAIL will scale to four appliances (16 nodes) upon initial release. VMware claims each appliance will support around 100 VMs or 250 virtual desktops.

EVO: RAIL was known by the code names Project Marvin and Project Mystic, and was anticipated by people in the IT industry since VMware made VSAN software generally available in March.

EVO: RAIL appliances provide a third way for customers to deploy VMware VSANs. They can build their own VSANs by installing the software on hardware they already own, install the software on pre-tested Ready Nodes from VMware hardware partners, or buy the hyper-converged EVO: RAIL systems. The purpose of EVO: RAIL appliances is to let customers quickly spin up VMs and provision storage.

"We're a software company, we're not a hardware company," Van Der Walt said. "We're not looking to get into the hardware business. We'll have to rely on partners for this to be successful."

Customers will contact the appliance vendors for support, although those vendors will send software support issues to VMware.

Van Der Walt said he expected about 50% to 55% of EVO: RAIL use cases to be for virtual desktop infrastructures, with approximately 15% used to build private cloud and the rest in remote and branch offices.

Hyper-convergence competition heats up

Other hyper-convergence vendors aren't backing down. VMware competitors and critics point out that VSAN lacks storage management features such as data deduplication and replication that limits its scale, but VMware lists those as VSAN roadmap items.

Hyper-converged startups are also making moves. Nutanix has forged an OEM deal with Dell that goes into effect in October, and last week it revealed plans for a new high-end version of its Virtual Compute Platform.

SimpliVity Inc. and Cisco have released a reference architecture for running SimpliVity's OmniStack software and hardware with Cisco's UCS C240 rack-mounted servers. SimpliVity will also continue to sell its OmniCube product, which runs on Dell x86 appliances.

"We're excited to have more loud voices in the market talking about hyper-convergence, but we look at our position in the market different than VSAN's," said Jesse St. Laurent, SimpliVity's VP of product strategy. "Our customers are using deduplication, compression and replication."

And the hyper-converged product roster is still growing. Newcomer Nimboxx Inc. entered the market in July, and others are likely to follow.

Van Der Walt said most of VMware's hyper-converged competitors are startups "who have been in existence less than five years. They don't have much on the balance sheet. Customers are concerned, 'What's the long game?'"

As for VSAN's shortcomings, Van Der Walt said they are temporary. "Does it have deduplication, replication and data services of other full-blown storage arrays or other virtual SAN appliances? No," Van Der Walt admitted. "But we'll get there."

Leah Schoeb, an analyst and senior partner at Evaluator Group, said VSAN also makes VMware more competitive with storage features of its Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisor competitor.

"This finally completes VMware's hypervisor architecture," Schoeb said of VSAN. "They never had a great solution for storage. Hyper-V has done a good job with SMB 3 and other storage features, and VMware really needed to do that. It's not as feature rich as some of the other products out there, but it's a start. They're a little late, but it had to be done."

IDC storage analyst Ashish Nadkarni said VMware is not only competing with hypervisor vendors and hyper-converged startups, but moving onto the turf of established storage vendors, even those who are RAIL partners. And that includes VMware's parent company EMC.

"VMware is spreading its wings. It's no longer a hypervisor-only company -- it's more of an infrastructure play," Nadkarni said. "Some of the infrastructure things they do are in direct conflict with EMC."

Next Steps

Projects Marvin and Mystic go live as EVO: RAIL

VMware debuts much-rumored hyper-convergence appliance

Dig Deeper on Converged infrastructure management

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