Microsoft is the original & ultimate hyperconverged play

The In Tech We Trust Podcast has quickly became my favorite enterprise technology podcast since it debuted late last year. If you haven’t tuned into it yet, I advise you to get the RSS feed on your favored podcast player of choice ASAP.

The five gents ((Nigel Poulton, Linux trainer at Pluralsight, Hans De Leenheer,datacenter/storage and one of my secret crushes, Gabe Chapman, Marc Farley and Rick Vanover)) putting on the podcast are among the sharpest guys in infrastructure technology, have great on-air chemistry with each other, and consistently deliver an organized & smart format that hits my player on-time as expected every week. Oh, and they’ve equalized the Skype audio feeds too!

And yet….I can’t let the analysis in the two most recent shows slip by without comment. Indeed, it’s time for some tough love for my favorite podcast.

Guys you totally missed the mark discussing hyperconvergence & Microsoft over the last two shows!

For my readers who haven’t listened, here’s the compressed & deduped rundown of 50+ minutes of good stimulating conversation on hyperconvergence:

  • There’s little doubt in 2015 that hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) is a durable & real thing in enterprise technology, and that that thing is changing the industry. HCI is real and not a fad, and it’s being adopted by customers.
  • But if HCI is a real, it’s also different things to different people; for Hans, it’s about scale-out node-based architecture, for others on the show, it’s more or less the industry definition: unified compute & storage with automation & management APIs and a GUI framework over the top.
  • But that loose definition is also evolving, as Rick Vanover sharply pointed out that EMC’s new offering, vSpex Blue, offers something more than what we’d traditionally (like two weeks ago) think of as hyperconvergence

Good stuff and good discussion.

And then the conversation turned to Microsoft. And it all went downhill. A summary of the guys’ views:

  • Microsoft doesn’t have a hyperconverged pony in the race, except perhaps Storage Spaces, which few like/adopt/bet on/understand
  • MS has ceded this battlefield to VMware
  • None of the cool & popular hyperconverged kids, save for Nutanix and Gridstore, want to play with Microsoft
  • Microsoft has totally blown this opportunity to remain relevant and Hyper-V is too hard. Marc Farley in particularly emphasized how badly Microsoft has blown hyperconvergence

I was, you might say, frustrated as I listened to this sentiment on the drive into my office today. My two cents below:

The appeal of Hyperconvergence is a two-sided coin. On the one side are all the familiar technical & operational benefits that are making it a successful and interesting part of the market.

  • It’s an appliance: Technical complexity and (hopefully) dysfunction are ironed out by the vendor so that storage/compute/network just work
  • It’s Easy: Simple to deploy, maintain, manage
  • It’s software-based and it’s evolving to offer more: As the guys on the show noted, newer HCI systems are offering more than ones released 6 months or a year ago.

The other side of that coin is less talked about, but no less powerful. HCI systems are rational cost centers, and the success of HCI marks a subtle but important shift in IT & in the market.

    • It’s a predictable check cut to fewer vendors: Hyperconvergence is also about vendor consolidation in IT shops that are under pressure to make costs predictable and smoother (not just lower).
    • It’s something other than best-of-breed: The success of HCI systems also suggests that IT shops may be shying away from best-of-breed purchasing habits and warming up to a more strategic one-throat-to-choke approach ((EMC & VMware, for instance, are titans in the industry, with best-in-class products in storage & virtualization, yet I can’t help but feel there’s more going on than the chattering classes realize. Step back and think of all the new stuff in vSphere 6, and couple it with all the old stuff that’s been rebranded as new in the last year or so by VMware. Of all that ‘stuff’, how much is best of breed, and how much of it is decent enough that a VMware customer can plausibly buy it and offset spend elsewhere?))
    • It’s some hybrid of all of the above: HCI in this scenario allows IT to have its cake and eat it too, maybe through vendor consolidation, or cost-offsets. Hard to gauge but the effect is real I think.

((As Vanover noted, EMC’s value-adds on the vSpex Blue architecture are potentially huge: if you buy vSpex Blue architecture, you get backup & replication, which means you don’t have to talk to or cut yearly checks to Commvault, Symantec or Veeam. I’ve scored touchdowns using that exact same play, embracing less-than-best Microsoft products that do the same thing as best-in-class SAN licenses))

And that’s where Microsoft enters the picture as the original -and ultimate- Hyperconverged play.

Like any solid HCI offering, Microsoft makes your hardware less important by abstracting it, but where Microsoft is different is that they scope supported solutions to x86. VMware, in contrast only hands out EVO:RAIL stickers to hardware vendors who dress x86 up and call it an appliance, which is more or less the Barracuda Networks model. ((I’m sorry. I know that was a a cheapshot,  but I couldn’t resist))

With your vanilla, Plain Jane whitebox x86 hardware, you can then use Microsoft’s Hyperconverged software system (or what I think of as Windows Server) to virtualize & abstract all the things from network (solid NFV & evolving overlay/SDN controller) to compute to storage, which features tiering, fault-tolerance, scale-out and other features usually found in traditional SAN systems.

But it doesn’t stop there. That same software powers services in an enormous IaaS/PaaS cloud, which works hand-in-hand with a federated productivity cloud that handles identity, messaging, data-mining, mail and more. The IaaS cloud, by the way, offers DR capabilities today, and you can connect to it via routing & ipsec, or you can extend your datacenter’s layer 2 broadcast domain to it if you like.

On the management/automation side, I understand/sympathize with ignorance of non-‘softies. Microsoft fans enthuse  about Powershell so much because it is -today-  a unified management system across a big chunk of the MS stack, either masked by GUI systems like System Center & Azure Pack or exposed as naked cmdlets. Powershell alone isn’t cool though, but Powershell & Windows Server aligned with truly open management frameworks like CIM, SMI-S and WBEM is very cool, especially in contrast to feature-packed but closed APIs.

On the cost side,there’s even more to the MS hyperconverged story:  Customers can buy what is in effect a single SKU (the Enterprise Agreement) and get access to most if not all of the MS stack.

Usually,organizations pay for the EA in small, easier-to-digest bites over a three year span, which the CFO likes because it’s predictable & smooth. (( Now, of course, I’m drastically simplifying Microsoft’s licensing regime and the process of buying an EA as you can’t add an EA to your cart & checkout, it’s a friggin negotiation. And yes I know everyone hates the true-up. And I grant that an EA just answers the software piece; organizations will still need the hardware, but I’d argue that de-coupling software from hardware makes purchasing the latter much, much easier, and how much hardware do you really need if you have Azure IaaS to fill in the gaps?))

Are all these Microsoft things you’ve bought best of breed? No, of course not. But you knew that ahead of time, if you did you homework.

Are they good enough in a lot of circumstances?

I’ll let you judge that for yourself, but, speaking from experience here, IT shops that go down the MS/EA route strategically do end up in the same magical, end-of-the-rainbow fairy-tale place that buyers of HCI systems are seeking.

That place is pretty great, let me tell you. It’s a place where the spend & costs are more predictable and bigger checks are cut to fewer vendors.  It’s a place where there are fewer debutante hardware systems fighting each other and demanding special attention & annual maintenance/support renewals in the datacenter. It’s also a place where you can manage things by learning verb-noun pairs in Powershell.

If that’s not the ultimate form of hyperconvergence, what is?

4 thoughts on “Microsoft is the original & ultimate hyperconverged play

  1. Nice write up Jeff and thanks for all the compliments.

    You are still missing the point though and you kind of are repeating what we stated. We are pretty well aware of the whole system center stack. We are very well aware of all the components that Microsoft already has that could build up on HCI.

    For an HCI solution there are a couple of things necessary:
    * node based architecture – single building block
    * automated install of all datacenter components
    * sold as 1 unit (HW, SW & Orchestration)

    My comment on the show was that with enough Powershell knowledge (and System Center power underneath probably) you can build a UI that makes a true HCI solution possible. If we missed something, I still don’t see it in your blog response. Can you show me de packaged solutions?

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  2. Wait, let me restate my question: where is the Microsoft empowered SKU that lets me deploy VMs within 30 minutes after opening the box and allows me to add/remove nodes with a single click. This is the premise of HCI.

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    • Thanks Jeff for being a regular listener and fan! Jeff, I agree with you about most of your points, but won’t take back anything I said about Microsoft not being a player in the HCI world. They COULD be, if they wanted to by investing in automated solutions that made it much easier to deploy.

      Take Storage Spaces. Interesting technology that really only works with a tiny number of shareable JBOD cabinets and a lot of detailed setup work that can be gleaned by reading Jose Barretto’s excellent and incredibly intricate blog posts. Many of the technologies in MS Server are similar in that they need the customer to do the heavy lifting. The potential is there for them to “do amazing” but my opinion is that Microsoft Server is not as much a solution as it is a cauldron of technologies for highly skilled admins and SI engineers to wield.

      Their lack of focus on the HCI space is easily measured by searching for “Microsoft hyperconverged” or “Microsoft HCI” (As Hans likes to say on the podcast, “crickets”.) Is a company a player in a market if they don’t identify themselves that way? I’d say no. FWIW, the best example of a Microsoft HCI solution is the PDW (Parallel Data Warehouse) – a product that is practically invisible in the market even though it is powered by the very successful SQL Server.

      There might not be a reason for Microsoft to label themselves as HCI. They might believe that most of the integration needs to be done by their hardware partners: Dell, HP and the rest. In the end, Microsoft might not differ much from VMware – who also depend on hardware partners to create the final products. Maybe there is no real place for a software vendor in the HCI business.

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  3. I think the observation here is more about “software defined”, and less about “hyperconverged”. EVO:Rail, like Nutanix and Simplivity, is about hyperconvergence, with a tightly defined software stack running on a tightly defined hardware platform. Software defined is about a software stack which allows an open hardware definition. Sure, Microsoft, like VMware, has all of the software needed for a software defined solution. But they have not knitted it together with a hardware platform definition to provide an EVO:Rail like solution.

    A pure Microsoft software defined hyperconverged platform could be cobbled together. Microsoft pushed this for the last 5+ years as a platform for Exchange, and Azure today (like Google and AWS) runs on some kind hyperconverged platform.

    Which brings up the real question: Are cloud based services, offered by cloud service providers, operating professionally managed, true software defined, open hardware, hyperconverged platforms the real next platform step for IT, and will tenant owned, on premises or colo based, tightly defined hyperconverged platforms like EVO:Rail, Nutanix, and Simplivity simply be ephemeral platforms?

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