Hyper-convergence with EVO:RAIL

‘Software defined’ in much data centre parlance has been associated with new levels of programmability in the configuration and management of IT infrastructure, with advanced customization and end user control the outcome. At its most recent annual end user conference, VMware pushed its own spin on this concept with announcement of a new appliEVO Rails logoance built on partner infrastructure that is ‘defined’ by VMware. Billed as "a new building block for the software-defined data centre," EVO:RAIL delivers "hyper-converged" infrastructure, including integrated compute, network, storage and management resources, based on a 100 percent VMware software stack. In the VMware schema, organizational shift towards the ‘software-defined data centre’ is inevitable, and with EVO:RAIL, the company is looking to position as the provider of software that will integrate complex, multi-vendor, multi-infrastructure environments. As EVO:RAIL product manager Bryan Adams explained, "there are a lot of logistical issues you can run into trying to manage a very disparate set of vendors and refresh cycles…. They’re solvable problems, but there’s no question they can lead to delays in the implementation of software defined data centre. So with EVO:RAIL, we’re looking to give you a way to do that much faster, and we do that by being very prescriptive on the hardware."

EVO:RAIL (named for ‘rail’ mount) targets a number of challenges faced by organizations that increasingly look to IT as a source of innovation and competitive positioning: while pre-tested and preconfigured infrastructure enables rapid deployment and scale of IT requirements, management through vSphere, VMware Virtual SAN, vCenter Log Insight, and the new EVO:RAIL engine, which offers automation in configuration and software patching and upgrade, removes complexity from data centre operation. To further simplify, the appliance features a new intuitive user interface that streamlines and automates many manual tasks, specifically, the creation and management of virtual machines, along with associated networks and data stores. According to VMware, EVO:RAIL will enable customers "to produce virtual machines within minutes of powering on the appliance," and through simplified management achieve (unspecified) increased efficiencies and operational cost savings.

EVO Rails services 2U-4 node requirments
EVO Rails services 2U-4 node requirments

On a spec level, initial deployment may begin with a single appliance with four nodes that can scale out, with automatic discovery, to four appliances (for 16 compute nodes). According to VMware, a single appliance can support up to 100 general purpose virtual machines, or 250 VDI virtual machines, and includes a VMware Virtual SAN data store with a 13 TB capacity. Outlining appliance capabilities, Duncan Epping, chief technologist at VMware explained that each of the four EVO:RAIL nodes have (at a minimum):

  • Two Intel E5-2620 v2 six-core CPUs
  • 192GB of memory
  • One SLC SATADOM or SAS HDD as the ESXiâ„¢ boot device
  • Three SAS 10K RPM 1.2TB HDD for the VMware Virtual SANâ„¢ data store
  • One 400GB MLC enterprise-grade SSD for read/write cache
  • One Virtual SAN-certified pass-through disk controller
  • Two 10GbE NIC ports (configured for either 10GBase-T or SFP+ connections)
  • One 1GbE IPMI port for remote (out-of-band) management

Evans distinguishes ‘converged infrastructure’ on offer from vendors such as VCE or HP over the past half-decade from EVO:RAIL's ‘hyper-converged infrastructure’ through the relative degrees of customization and consultation that are involved in deployment. While existing converged infrastructure solutions resolve some of the issues faced by data centre managers as vendors offer a single point of contact for the actual infrastructure components they have actually developed, to consume those pieces of converged infrastructure, he claimed, "usually requires a very large upfront investment — typically millions of dollars — and it usually requires customization, often in the form of a professional services engagement that lasts some number of months." In contrast, with EVO:RAIL VMware has "taken those converged infrastructure concepts, and shrunk them into a much smaller form factor that is more easily consumed in that it costs less," he explained. "You can get to deployment in fifteen minutes, as opposed to months."

Single point of contact for the EVO:RAIL is provided through VMware’s new infrastructure partners (with VMware in the background with additional software support as needed), Dell, EMC, Fujitsu, Inspur, Net One Systems Co. and Supermicro, which will offer the appliance as a single SKU covering hardware, software, and support and services costs. According to Evans, VMware’s relationships extend beyond reselling: the company has worked very closely with qualified partners, he explained, to ensure that there is a hardware platform that is very specific, and specifically tuned to run the subset of the software defined data centre that forms part of the VMware software stack.

Evans maintained that VMware will continue to support customers looking to implement traditional data centre infrastructure — with standalone VSAN, for example — as well as converged environments such as vBlock, but with the new hyper-converged appliance has introduced a new deployment model — to approach a new target market. "This [EVO:RAIL] is an ideal fit for the higher end of SMB or up into the commercial space, especially for general purpose vms or for running ‘data-centre-in-a-box’ concepts. But there are also a lot of larger organizations that are interested in carving out smaller silos of resource to run desktops or VDI and View, or standalone test and dev environments, or in allocating different business units their own pieces of infrastructure."

VMware’s EVO:RAIL partnership with Dell, which has evolved strong relationships with the SMB community, is another solid indicator of VMware’s growing appeal to the mid-market, a segment that is especially vulnerable to the appeal of public cloud computing. Two years back, VMware introduced its own version of public cloud resources, the vCloud public cloud, ostensibly to address customer demand for hybrid environments; however, VMware continues to be heavily invested in the creation of solutions for onsite, private cloud deployment. According to CEO Pat Gelsinger, approximately 90% of data centre resources continue to be old school, onsite deployments. But with EVO:RAIL, the company is looking ensure ongoing demand for this infrastructure — offering the simplicity of public cloud services to a segment that otherwise may not have the requisite skills in-house to deploy clouds onsite.

In addition to simplified deployment and management, VMware is banking on its extensive software installed base (VMware continues to dominate virtualization markets, with penetration rates well over 80 percent in many North American markets), which may encourage customers to favour a converged infrastructure solution from a familiar provider that is likely already installed, as well as EVO:RAIL's ability to work with multiple hardware platforms to drive appliance marketing. Herein lies some of the rubs. While the Dell relationship makes a good deal of sense from a midmarket perspective, and while Evans claims that VMware is currently working with a number of additional partner prospects, the EVO:RAIL lineup provokes a number of questions: where are the tier one server providers that are likely resident in many heterogeneous enterprise and SMB environments; what does this new platform signal in terms of an evolving relationship with Cisco in VCE; and how can VMware match the efficiencies that have been built into converged infrastructure by vendors that design both the hardware and the software stack; and what of the development of application-centric infrastructure that appears today to be state-of-the-art in infrastructure provisioning and management? The months ahead should be interesting as answers to these questions emerge with the unfolding of VMware’s hardware ecosystem and integration capabilities. Stay tuned.

The first installment in VMware’s converged infrastructure family, EVO:RAIL is expected to be available from partners starting in the second half of 2014.

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