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Plexxi buy bolsters HPE composable infrastructure strategy

HPE strengthened its composable infrastructure strategy with the acquisition of Plexxi, a startup that adds a networking element crucial to the company's success in that market.

With its acquisition of Plexxi, Hewlett Packard Enterprise aims to not only fortify its hyper-converged infrastructure strategy, but get closer to its longer-term goal to streamline the construction of software-defined data centers.

HPE grew its hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) revenue in 2017 to move up to third place in IDC's market rankings, and it could accelerate that growth. But some said they believe Plexxi's hyper-converged network technology is more valuable to  HPE composable infrastructure strategy.

"When you don't have software-defined networking as part of your solution, you can introduce artificial constraints," said Steve McDowell, a senior analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, based in Austin, Texas. "Plexxi allows them to treat networking much like you do virtual workloads by essentially virtualizing the network."

The HCI market is still important as a steppingstone along HPE's path to a full-blown composable infrastructure strategy, one HPE executive said.

"Composable and HCI are in the midst of finding their place relative to each other," said Sarwar Raza, vice president of strategy for software-defined and cloud at HPE. "The vision is a software-defined data center that, from a user's perspective, bridges the public and private cloud, making the app dev experience agnostic in terms of where a workload is landing."

Networking plugs composable gaps

Raza, as well as some industry analysts, said they believe networking is the missing technology piece for HCI offerings. But HPE and other vendors now emphasize networking as part of their composable portfolios.

Earlier this month, Nutanix introduced Nutanix Flow, a software-defined networking product that will be integrated in the company's Acropolis software to provide application-centric security against both internal and external threats.

Dell Technologies has VMware's NSX software-defined networking product in its lineup, which has gathered some market momentum in the past year, but NSX could be just the first step. At its recent Dell Technologies World conference, executives discussed the company's budding composable infrastructure strategy and briefly mentioned the upcoming PowerEdge MX -- a modular system to be delivered late this year, with five times more network I/O performance and three times the onboard storage typically seen in two-socket servers.

While HPE appears to have a more evolved composable strategy than Dell, some analysts said they wonder if HPE can crisply execute on that strategy.

"HPE has made a lot of acquisitions, but it is not clear to me they are as successful as Dell yet in putting all the piece parts together," McDowell said. "But if HPE can execute, [it] can be a strong competitor."

Besides its composable strategy, the company also must better position its older and newer storage products, 3PAR and Nimble.

"3PAR is very different from Nimble, and it should be streamlined from top to bottom," McDowell said. "But I think they are trying to go there with their HCI and composable products."

HPE charts edge course through composable, HCI systems

The three product lines at the heart of HPE's HCI-composable strategy are SimpliVity for HCI; Synergy, the anchor of its composable infrastructure plans; and OneSphere, the company's multi-cloud management software.

"The next phase in HCI is blending in composable infrastructure to give larger IT shops more flexibility in drawing on a common pool of resources to feed different servers, from bare metal, containers and cloud," said Ric Lewis, HPE's senior vice president and general manager of the company's software-defined and cloud group.

That begins with moving the technology out to the edge. Given the advances in networking and management software -- coupled with lower-priced, but more powerful hardware -- IT shops are increasingly keen to offload more data analytics processing out to edge servers.

"We see users wanting HCI-style simplicity and software-defined storage out on the edge," Lewis said. "We are expanding SimpliVity's use across more of our product lines and into the bigger data centers by putting it inside our composable infrastructure."

The HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Ala., uses HPE's HCI 380 hyper-converged product and has evaluated the company's SimpliVity-based offering, though the firm has no short-term plans to migrate, said Katreena Mullican, manager of cloud computing at HudsonAlpha. "It is functioning well for us and it's not at the top of the list of things to replace," she said.

They really did have to throw the baby out with the bath water and start fresh ... investing in how to manage complexity and cost for hybrid clouds.
Dana Gardnerprincipal analyst, Interarbor Solutions

However, HudsonAlpha has committed to HPE's Synergy, the key component in the company's composable infrastructure platform, which the firm adopted in beta two years ago and is now used as a production platform.

Given the large amounts of data generated by researchers, HudsonAlpha needed to streamline its resources across its two local data centers to reduce costs and prevent overprovisioning. They also needed to rapidly deploy custom environments with automation.

"Genomics and research is a challenging environment for IT," Mullican said. "Our applications require a large amount of compute and storage and output a massive amount of data. And the tools we use are evolving quickly."

Synergy now drives most of the company's most powerful servers, and the entire infrastructure -- from compute to storage to networking -- can now be assembled and reassembled on demand via an API. "We can treat code as infrastructure, which has benefits like reduced human error and more opportunities for code review and collaboration," Mullican said.

With HCI and composable technologies poised to drive HPE's future growth, some analysts said the company's decision to split in two and sell off various software and services units was astute, as many of those older technologies would be difficult to retrofit to more modern composable platforms.

"They really did have to throw the baby out with the bath water and start fresh, rather than try to bolt on or rejigger old technologies to fit with the new," said Dana Gardner, principal analyst with Interarbor Solutions LLC in Gilbert, N.H. "Instead of investing in things like Moonshot and The Machine, they are investing in how to manage complexity and cost for hybrid clouds."

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