Hardware Still Matters – Even With Software Defined Storage

Hardware Still Matters – Even With Software Defined Storage

Chris EvansHyper-converged, Storage

This week Atlantis Computing, a vendor of hyper-converged and software defined storage solutions, released a new hardware appliance in their “Hyperscale” range, aimed at the ROBO (Remote Office Branch Office) market.  I’ll come back to the details in a moment, however what is interesting in this announcement is that despite appearances to the contrary, hardware still matters, even in a Software Defined world.

Atlantis is one of a number of companies that started out with software-only offerings.  Their premise was quiet simple – BYOH – Bring Your Own Hardware and they provide the software to run it.  I first discussed Atlantis in 2011 with reference to VDI and their ILIO or Inline Image Optimisation software.  ILIO creates a logical storage layer that sits between the hypervisor and physical storage, acting as a high-speed cache using server DRAM.  Data is de-duplicated in memory, so as you can imagine, with VDI images this results in very high reduction ratios and because of the performance benefits of running most I/O from DRAM, means the solution can be deployed on JBOD (just a bunch of disks) – for non-persistent desktops at least.  Incidentally, this is a great example of how clever software can be used to solve a problem like VDI – we don’t need to throw the proverbial hammer at it and install expensive flash systems.

Dell FX2 FC630

Over time, Atlantis has morphed into a hyper-converged solution provider, released a server version of their ILIO system (USX) and most recently in May 2015 brought HyperScale to the market.  This is a hardware and software solution that uses commodity servers to deliver a scale-out hyper-converged platform based on either VMware or Citrix hypervisors.  The latest product in the HyperScale lineup is the CX-4 (which brings back memories of EMC CLARiiON), a two-node hyper-converged appliance that can be ordered on SuperMicro, Dell, HP, Lenovo or Cisco server hardware.  If you want more specific details, check out the Microsite (link below) and scroll to the Resources section.  The Dell model is particularly interesting as it is based on the FX2 server and uses point-to-point 10Gb/E connectivity.

What’s interesting about this announcement is the bundling of hardware with what was originally a software-only solution.  Although customers could choose their own hardware, in reality going with a vendor certified solution provides a number of advantages:

  • The vendor will have tested the solution for both compatibility and performance.
  • The vendor will know how to support the solution, including specifics of the hardware (like reproducing problems).
  • The vendor provides a single SKU and single support point of contact, but leverages the benefit of the hardware vendor’s field support organisation (for things like parts replacement).
  • The customer gets to use a hardware vendor that they are already familiar with (because an option is available from every hardware vendor), making installation, support and management much easier.
  • The customer doesn’t have to go through a design and testing phase, they simply buy and install one of the pre-validated appliances.

So ultimately it’s a win-win – the customer gets a supported and tested platform; the vendor doesn’t have to run their own hardware support organisation and can effectively outsource it to one of many hardware providers.

Moving to a hardware appliance model isn’t a new idea for software vendors.  VMware did it with EVO:RAIL in 2014 (although not to great success).  EMC took this blueprint and developed VSPEX BLUE.  Also in the market now are appliance solutions from Maxta (MaxDeploy), StarWind, GridStore and DataCore.  Some of these are reference architectures and some are actual appliances with SKUs.  Ironically, Nutanix has gone the other way and released a software version of their software (albeit only as a community version so far).

The Architect’s View™

In some respects it was inevitable that the software vendors would make things easier for their customers by building reference architectures and appliances.  What this demonstrates is that most customers don’t want the grief of building hardware from scratch because getting hardware right is important.  It matters because as more deployments are in the field, customers start finding the corner and edge cases where their solution doesn’t work quite the way they expect.  The problem may come down to things like firmware on RAID cards, hard drives or even the server itself.  Debugging those solutions is hard for any software vendor as they will likely not be able to re-create the problem without either spending time onsite with the customer or trying to build out a matching hardware configuration.  The cost and effort of this is too high; the alternative is that the customer doesn’t really get a good level of support.  There will always be IT organisations that want to go down their own design route and that’s fine, if you have the resources to deal with it, but I think most will settle for pre-tested appliances.

One final thought; as more vendors come into the hardware appliance market, the incremental cost of the hardware will start to become more transparent.  That potentially represents a risk for the original appliance vendors like Nutanix and SimpliVity, as it could highlight where those companies have been making (possibly significant) margin from the hardware component.  Just like the all-flash market has become competitive, the hyper-converged market could be about to head the same way.

Further Reading

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Image: the image header on this post is an early Hitachi disk drive.  The picture was taken by me at Hitachi uValue, Tokyo in 2010.