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Three years ago a startup called Nutanix surprised the infrastructure world by releasing a 2U-sized integrated appliance with an x86-based VMware server, networking and storage that could expand as easily as plugging another node.

It was the first of the so-called hyper-converged systems. Others followed from SimpliVity, Pivot3 and Scale Computing. Major equipment manufacturers including IBM, Hewlett-Packard and VMware are getting into the game.

The idea of adding infrastructure like building blocks has “upset the apple cart,” says Forrester Research analyst Richard Fischera.

In the accompanying video, Anton Granic, Nutanix’s senior director of Canadian operations, talks about the company and why its approach can work for some enterprises.

The Nuantix appliances aren’t inexpensive — they start at US$50,000. The latest two-node model starts at US$110,000 a node — and are aimed at medium-sized enterprises and up.

As Granic said in an interview, the idea is to follow the Google approach of using commodity hardware with direct attached storage,  wrapped with a distributed file system that allows Nutanix to elastically scale.

“Our value prop is not to sell more hardware,” he said, “it’s to sell less, to allow people to do more with less … You don’t have to buy these massive refrigerators to scale up. You can start very small … you can grow as needed.”

After 18 months of being in Canada, the company has over 100 customers here, he said.

The concept has caught on with early makers already broadening their lineups. Pivotal3 recently released its vSTAC HCIA blade-based appliance for VDI deployments, which can support up to 10,000 virtual desktops in a single rack. Scale Computing has just updated the HyperCore software that runs its HC3 appliances to add near-instant VM-level snapshots, virtual machine thin cloning and the ability to import and export VMs to a backup file server. Cisco Systems has teamed with SimpliVity, which is providing its OmniStack Integrated Solution with Cisco’s UCS C-Series Rack-Mount systems.

Fischera says IBM has its PureFlex system — although, he adds, it doesn’t yet have the level of storage transparency that others have — EMC has just released its EVO:RAIL system for partners, which runs its vSAN technology, and HP has just released two ConvergedSystem 200 appliances: One runs its StoreVirtual software, the other EMC’s EVO platform.

Is it for everyone? “This is the heart of the software-defined data centre environment that everybody’s trying to build,” says Fischera. “The notion of being able to flexibly provision storage and processing power together without having to buy a large array is very powerful to a lot of people because there are significant price-performance advantages.”

On the other hand, he acknowledged, hyper-converged systems have their own architecture. Invested in a lot of traditional arrays? You can’t connect to them. Which is why the Register recently argued we’re in a hyper-converged bubble.

Still, Fischer noted “they allow you to scale your VMware or other virtual cluster more easily than conventional tools.” Plug in a new node the software automatically discovers the new hardware and adds the storage to the virtual store, so there’s none of the problems of administering separate systems. “One of the major headaches in managing large VMware clusters is managing the storage for the virtual machine,” he said.



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