VMworld: VMware Enters the Hardware World with EVO:RAIL

In the keynote on day one of VMworld, VMware unleashed to the world EVO:RAIL. “What?” I hear you say, “but VMware is a software-only company!” Well, yes it is, and a software company is what it remains. 

OK, so what exactly is EVO:RAIL? To give it its fancy Dan title, it is a hyperconverged infrastructure (HCIA). To take away all the gloss and marketing sparkle, it is nothing more than a reference architecture of closely integrated VMware products, wrapped up in a new HTML5 GUI that provides orchestration to make the magic happen. This is then run on a set of approved hardware from authorised partners. I know that Duncan Epping states on his VMware blog that it is not a reference architecture, and we can quibble over nuances and definitions if you wish. You could say it is a hardware appliance, but only from the position of the vendor providing the hardware.

Now, that might sound a tad harsh and belittling, but it is not really. Let’s think about this. As of today, EVO:RAIL’s partners consist of:

  • Inspur
  • NetOne.

Interestingly, there is no HP and also no CISCO on the list. Is this by design, or was HCL approval too late?  A question for another post, I think.

The partners listed above provide the hardware vessel for EVO:RAIL. It is at this point that it becomes an appliance. The partners, however, are provided a reference architecture to wrap around their hardware devices.

VMware has provided the following specifications:

An EVO:RAIL solution will, at a minimum, provide four nodes, and each node is to have the following:

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

Sounds like a reference architecture to me.

The resulting package, software, and hardware are sold as a single SKU, which means a single support point. And more interestingly, a single VMware support point. Yes, VMware is the point of contact for EVO support, including hardware support. I fully expect that the actual hardware support will be offloaded very quickly behind the veiled curtain, but from a customer perspective it is a one-call shop. This will make procurement an order of magnitude simpler.

One interesting thing I noted in the noise yesterday is that EVO will only be supported up to sixteen nodes: that is, 4 x 1 HCIA (remember, a single HCIA is four nodes). I find this a little odd, considering that it is based on vSphere and VSAN technology. Currently, VSAN can scale to thirty-two nodes, the full capacity of a vSphere cluster. But then again, this is just version 1.0, and I remember that the VSAN beta was at first limited to eight and then sixteen nodes before being released at thirty-two. I do not think that the four-node (sixteen per unit) limit is too restrictive a factor, and I fully expect that to increase to thirty-two quite quickly, perhaps even before the units appear on open sale.

Another interesting thing is where EVO:RAIL is being pointed in terms of use cases:

  • General-purpose applications
  • VDI
  • ROBO
  • Virtual private cloud (on-premises).

No big data applications or Tier 1 apps, like SAP, SQL, and BI. This does leave a gap for the other hyperconverged players, like Nutanix and SimpliVity.

So, what is my take on this?

To sum up, I think this is a very astute move by VMware. Hyperconverged appliances are the future. Marrying vSphere and VSAN and tightly coupling them in designed-for-purpose appliances shortens “time to usefulness.” As a 1.0 release, this shows significant promise. The introduction of an HTML5-based GUI is a boon: please migrate into vCenter client!

As to the future of EVO, I know that Chris Wolf (VMware’s CTO, Americas) has stated that it is not a competitor to VCE and that VCE still has a valid place. I personally think its position is open to change as EVO evolves and gains greater scale.

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