Nutanix getting traction with server-storage hybrids

The Global 2000 comes a-knockin' – and maybe an IT giant with gobs o' cash

The road to the present is littered with the rusty hulks of server companies that had great engineering and a new twist on an old systems idea, and yet were crushed by incumbents. But judging by its numbers for the past year and a half, upstart Nutanix – which is peddling a virtualized server cluster with a virtualized SAN spread across flash and disk drives – is making some headway.

And we all know what that means: Nutanix is ripe to be acquired.

Nutanix started selling its original and eponymous appliances eighteen months ago, and has now sold more than 3,000 machines to several hundred customers worldwide. The company said in a statement on Wednesday that it has achieved an annualized run rate of $80m in the first quarter and that it grew revenues 80 per cent sequentially from the fourth quarter.

This may not sound like a lot, but it is considerably better than Liquid Computing, Fabric7, 3Leaf Systems, and a slew of others did in such a short time.

Nutanix has nearly 200 employees, just about double from a year ago, and now has 170 partners who are either peddling stuff on top of the NX appliances or helping to sell them.

The difference between Nutanix and now-defunct server companies – and even a fast-growing Sun Microsystems two decades ago – is that its Nutanix Operating System is pulling the storage area network into the server cluster, making it all one seamless, server-storage half-blood. So says Howard Ting, who took over as vice president of marketing last fall after doing a stint at security appliance maker Palo Alto Networks before it went public.

The key part of the Nutanix code, which is what makes it different from other virtual server appliances, is the Scale-Out Converged Storage virtual disk controller, which runs on a few of the cores on each node in a Nutanix cluster. This SOCS software takes Fusion-IO PCI flash cards, Intel SATA SSDs, and Seagate disk drives and creates a virtual storage pool that all of the virtual machines in the cluster can access. It turns server nodes into a virtual SAN, and that eliminates the need for buying an expensive SAN for virty clusters.

"We have brought the storage into the cluster, and we have commoditized it," says Ting, and this is why the US government, financial services firms, healthcare companies, and educational institutions are running a lot of proofs of concepts with the NX-3000 series of appliances.

About 25 per cent of the iron is going to Uncle Sam, which is in many cases putting server clusters into vehicles to get image and signal processing at command posts or into the field in Humvees, in some cases.

Virtual desktop infrastructure was the obvious early-use case for Nutanix machines, and it is still driving a lot of deals, but Ting says the company is seeing companies dump Microsoft workloads such as Exchange Server and SQL Server on the boxes, and has just closed a deal this month with a Global 2000-class company for 1,500 server nodes to run an analytics workload. (No, it is not Hadoop, but it is something similar, Ting teases, and no, he won't tell us who the customer is yet.)

"We're starting to get into the Global 2000 now," says Ting. "Last year, we had one customer in that class, and now we have dozens. We have purposely tried to stay away from these customers because of all the sway that IBM, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Cisco have, but the Global 2000 discovered us and we are being pulled into that part of the market."

One of the effects of being pulled into larger accounts is that Nutanix is getting a little more flexible about the configurations of its NX-3000 series appliances, allowing customers to tweak them for specific workloads.

El Reg told you all about the NX-3000 machines when they launched back in December. Generally, they are four-node tray servers that use two Xeon E5 processors with either 128GB or 256GB of main memory, plus two 10Gb/sec Ethernet ports; to this is added five 2.5-inch 1TB disks, one 2.5-inch 300GB SSD drive, and one 400GB Fusion-IO card per node.

In April, Nutanix launched the NX-3050 appliance, which took out the Fusion-IO flash card (sorry, Woz) and replaced it with another Intel S3700 SSD weighing in at 400GB. Ting says that this gives nearly the same performance with a little tweaking of the SOCS software, and cuts out a lot of cost.

Later this month, Nutanix will offer a storage-heavy configuration that will put only two server nodes in a 2U chassis instead of four, but these will be loaded up with five 3.5-inch SATA drives weighing in at 4TB. That will yield 20TB per node for raw disk storage instead of 5TB with the smaller 2.5-inch 1TB SATA drives used in the NX-3000 and NX-3050 machines.

Looking out further ahead, Nutanix is gearing up to put Intel's impending "Ivy Bridge-EP" Xeon E5 v2 processors into its appliances, and is working to push up the thermal envelope of the server chassis so it can ramp up to higher clock speeds, as well. "We will be able to get more cores and higher clock speeds with Ivy Bridge," says Ting. How many, Ting can't say, but it is widely expected that Xeon E5 v2 processors will have ten cores, up from eight cores with the current Xeon E5 chips.

So the question now is: who could really use that interesting SOCS software and put it to good use? And how much money might they be willing to shell out to get it?

Dell bought RNA Networks and turned it into a flash controller called Fluid Cache, so it already thinks it has what it needs – and it wants to sell external storage arrays, just like HP and IBM. Cisco Systems could use a storage story of its own, as well as a more dense tray server design to complement its existing UCS rack and blade servers, so that might be a nice fit. Fujitsu and NEC could get hungry for more servers at any time, as could Lenovo, of course. ®

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