EVO:RAIL Is Dead! Long Live VxRail!

In June 2014, VMware’s Project Marvin was sighted. From that point until the release of the tech preview at VMworld at the end of August, there was very little to know about it. What was previewed? EVO:RACK and EVO:RAIL, VMware’s hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) offering. This was a big step for VMware. Its first hardware release was not just hardware, but the whole software ecosystem to make EVO:RAIL and EVO:RACK a turnkey appliance. This is a huge project that must have taken a lot of internal resources to pull off. A strange move from a successful, pure software system. Earlier this week, rumour of the end of EVO:RACK and EVO:RAIL started to circulate. On February 16, VCE announced the release of VxRack and VxRail.

What does this move mean? First we will look at what VMware’s offering is and where it fits into the market. Then, we will come back to the move from VMware to VCE.

VxRack and VxRail work on the same principal of individual ESXi hosts that on initial boot do some autodiscovery for sister systems and negotiate out the deployment of vCenter Server to manage the system. From this point, managing the system is a normal experience of managing vCenter, and adding more nodes is plug ’n play. On boot, new nodes find the rest of the system and can be added in. This is a dream come true for system admins, and it is unique to VMware: no one else can deploy vCenter out automatically. SimpliVity and Nutanix deployments involve getting the ESXi hosts up and then adding them into a preexisting vCenter system. Indeed, SimpliVity recommends having the vCenter that manages the cluster outside the cluster for DR purposes. VMware’s intimate knowledge of vCenter gives a massive advantage to a hyperconverged system in this respect. But installation is only a small part of the lifecycle of systems.

Another feature of VxRail (and EVO:RAIL before it) that differentiates it from its competitors is the form factor. The tech preview was built on Supermicro FatTwin sled systems, giving four nodes in a 2U form factor. EVO:RAIL was designed to be sold not just by VMware, but also through partners, so it was possible to buy EVO:RAIL through Dell, Fujitsu, and others too, but all in this sled system. This base of four nodes gives us a few nice things. The most obvious is that the base unit is a simple resilient cluster. There is no option to buy just one or two nodes, so a simple installation can make a lot of assumptions about available resilience. VSAN can be used for storage (which wouldn’t be possible if there were just a single node), and distributed switches can be autodeployed, knowing that networks will exist on multiple nodes. Compare this to SimpliVity or Nutanix, where individual nodes must assume they will be deployed alone, so drives must be dedicated to both OS and RAID areas for datastores. A single VxRail 2U system, then, makes a perfect management cluster for small to midsized environments. Of course, there are downsides. Being so centrally focused on VMware, VxRail isn’t as good a fit as other HCI systems for Docker containers, Hyper-V, or OpenStack. VSAN is also not as mature as the systems Nutanix and SimpliVity use, and SimpliVity has hardware accelerated de-dup and compression.

Looking at VxRack, this is the big boy, sold as a single, pre–cabled out rack of VxRail systems with top-of-rack switches. VxRack offers a lot of compute in a very easy-to-stand-up fashion. This is something that SimpliVity and Nutanix struggle to compete with, but then it’s also not got the scale and grunt of the Vblock system that is VCE’s current mainstay.

What does the move from VMware to VCE mean? Well, VCE looks on the face of it to be a much better fit for Vx. VxRail and VxRack fill a gap on the lower end that Vblock was badly missing, making for a more complete product set. VCE also has a lot more experience with the hardware side than VMware. With the recent staff cuts, it looks like VMware has refocused on pure software in anticipation of the Dell merger. Finally, a move and a rebrand will get the Vx systems some much needed exposure after a somewhat quiet time.

“The king is dead; long live the king!” goes the chant. EVO:RAIL is dead; long live VxRail!