Cisco’s feeling hyper: UCS servers, Springpath ... are you thinking what we're thinking?

Hyper-converged systems would up UCS’ game

Comment Cisco’s storage array game has been broken since the Invicta all-flash arrays were canned last year, but the growing tide of hyper-converged systems, featuring server-centric, virtual SAN-based storage, presents it with a big opportunity. Albeit, one with a dash of VCE partner EMC competition but, hey, what’s new?

Cisco is, simplistically put, a supplier of networking gear and servers to enterprises large and small. Those enterprises are now preferring to buy their data centre IT components – servers, system software like hypervisors, storage, adaptors and switches – in a converged infrastructure (CI) state with simpler ordering, supply and support. EMC’s VCE business is the prime example of this, with Cisco servers, EMC external storage and VMware’s ESXi hypervisor combined into a single, rack-scale system.

Hyper-converged systems

Some customers prefer to go even further down this road and have hyper-converged systems which do away with the external storage array and aggregate the component servers’ direct-attached storage into a virtual block-accessed SAN. Such hyper-converged infrastructure appliances (HCIAs) are scale-out in design, multi-node in form-factor, and represent single orderable item (SKU) building blocks for data centres.

The runaway leaders here are Nutanix and SimpliVity, which both ship hardware-based appliances running their software. GridStore is a Hyper-V-based HCIA hardware vendor. Then there are a group of software-based HCIA vendors, such as Atlantis, Maxta, Scale Computing and Springpath, who strike alliances with hardware vendors and their channel partners to ship complete HCIAs.

VMware with its VSAN software tried to join them, striking up the EVO:Rail arrangement with partners, such as owner EMC and its VSPEX Blue product, to deliver HCIAs. This failed due to software gaps and licensing problems, and has bern abandoned. However VMware fixed the software gaps with VSAN 6.2 and its partners will now be re-energised to sell VSAN-based HCIAs.

EMC’s plans include the VxRail appliances, sold by EMC’s VCE unit. Meanwhile, HPE is producing an Azure-in-a-can HCIA, the HPE Hyper Converged 250 for Microsoft CPS Standard. HP stopped selling its EVO: Rail gear in July last year.

SimpliVity is a Cisco partner and sells Cisco UCS server-based HCIAs. Any hopes of a closer partnership were not helped when Cisco invested in Springpath in January, with rumours of an OEM deal being prepared.

At the time we said: “Clearly Cisco is preparing to launch a hyper-converged infrastructure appliance (HCIA) using its own UCS servers and Springpath software. Watch out for this in the next few months.”

Cisco and Springpath

Our logic here was that, although Cisco supplies servers to VCE, the HCIA market is growing fast and hardware competitors are using Dell, HP, SuperMicro and other servers and not Cisco’s UCS hardware. EMC, via VCE, only reaches a portion of that market so Cisco should address the remainder to both preserve its current UCS market share and grow it further.

We expected Cisco HCIA news to emerge from Cisco Live in Europe (CLEUR) last week, but it did not. Attention now turns to its Partner Summit in San Diego, California, next week. Day one, Monday Feb 29, is EMC’s massive DSSD rack-scale flash array announcement. So we might expect any Cisco HCIA news to come out on Tuesday or even Wednesday, after the DSSD launch dust has settled.

At the partner summit there is an agenda session entitled "Cisco Drives Innovation: New Infrastructure Solutions for Today’s Data Center World." Its description includes this:

Learn how Cisco will drive industry transitions to next-generation data center architectures such as hyper-converged infrastructure and how the next wave of Cisco Data Center solutions are designed to simplify IT and power the business evolution with your customers

Sources say

According to channel sources we have spoken to, an HCIA system is going to be announced at the event, using the Springpath software stack, UCS blade servers and management, with a common set of interfaces.

A channel partner said many mid-market customers were buying both converged infrastructure systems and HCIAs, and wanted them to work together: "Customers want hyper-converged and converged infrastructure working alongside each other. This will integrate into converged and so puts Cisco is a very strong position with the hybrid model.”

Cisco has several CI arrangements, such as VCE and its Vblocks, FlexPods with NetApp, and VersaStacks with IBM. If Cisco partners widely for CI systems then we might expect it to have more than one arrangement for HCIA ones.

A partner said: "The product is designed for interoperability between hyper converged and UCS, really disruptive against [hyper converged-only players] Nutanix and Simplivity and on a par with HP, which offers good interoperability between hyper-converged and the rest of its portfolio."

The partners expect pricing to be "really aggressive," as Cisco tries to build HCIA market share against stiff competition from Nutanix, SimpliVity, and EMC/VMware, as well as HPE.

One partner said: "When Cisco sells UCS they have attached it to NetApp or EMC, and so UCS has done well because it is not disruptive to the storage people. Pricing is expected to be aggressive, really aggressive. But if Cisco rips the arse out of pricing how will NetApp and EMC feel about it? Not sure how Cisco will position that."

Further product details are expected at Cisco's global partner conference in San Diego next week. ®

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