VMware VSAN cements changes coming to the data center


For months, VMware has been talking about VSAN, the company’s server-based scale out storage solution, which VMware released into beta at VMworld 2013. With this beta release came a great deal of interest as well as analysis about what this release could possibly mean for the data center as well as the overall IT market.

And now, VSAN’s general availability release is imminent and, depending on when this article is published, may already be reality. I’m here to say that I believe that VSAN, while a welcome step forward, simply validates what was already beginning to take place on the data center.

Validating of others’ strategies

For those laser-focused on just VMware and not the rest of the ecosystem, VSAN may appear to be incredibly innovative, and it is. However, other companies, such as Nutanix, SimpliVity, Scale Computing, and Maxta, really spearheaded what has now become known as the hyperconverged space.

All of these companies – as well as VMware with VSAN – have made the decision to target the storage resource in the data center. Storage is generally considered to be the most expensive and most challenging part of the data center infrastructure. So, it’s logical that startups would be focused on eliminating this pain point from the data center. Even though VMware didn’t necessarily invent the hyperconverged space, its jump into this burgeoning market absolutely validates the strategy and the intended outcomes that startups staked out when they each took the plunge.

It’s not “back to the future”

I’ve heard many people talk about the fact that hyperconverged solutions are just a return to the old days when every individual server carried its own storage. While, technically, each host in a hyperconverged cluster does have its own individual storage, there are some major differences. Back in the old days, server-based and directly attached storage were generally bound to their host systems. In the world of hyperconvergence, think of each node as lending its storage to the clustered whole. You see, unlike the days of old, storage in VSAN and other solutions is bound together through powerful software constructs, which aggregates all of this physically distributed storage into a single storage resource pool. So, rather than thinking about an individual node as just a server plus some storage, think of it as an appliance or as a building block of the data center.

VSAN and storage mindshare

Given VMware’s place in the market, it’s no surprise that VSAN is talked about so much. What is somewhat surprising is VMware’s journey into storage, which would seem to be a direct attack on its corporate parent company, EMC. However, notwithstanding the fact that EMC owns VMware, VMware still has a fiduciary responsibility to its own stakeholders. From that perspective, it’s not a huge surprise that VMware is seemingly biting the hand that feeds them. EMC, in its own part, is also partnering with VMware’s archrival Microsoft and has recently announced a number of new enablement programs that all reside in the Microsoft cloud… powered by Hyper-V.

It’s apparent that VMware knows it must get into storage in order to continue to grow and that EMC must pay attention to Hyper-V for the same reason. It’s an incredibly interesting situation that wouldn’t have even been considered just a few short years ago.

Now, back to a bit more about VSAN. VSAN is a very cool technology that promises to simplify the storage paradigm, as it exists in today’s data centers. Storage is a mess, with people not knowing what do to with flash or still continuing to simply throw disk spindles to fix storage problems. VSAN works by combining the best of both kinds of storage and leveraging them in ways that are transparent to the user. When speed is required, solid state storage is used as an acceleration mechanism. When capacity is needed, VSAN uses large disks that are built for that purpose. In fact, VSAN requires the use of both kinds of storage in order to operate.

In an effort to compete with the startups that have staked their claim in this space, VMware is also partnering with hardware vendors to build VSAN-Ready server nodes that will come preconfigured with the vSphere, VSAN, and the right hardware to build a complete VSAN node. It could be considered an appliance-based products.

I’m not going to go into a feature-by-feature discussion of VSAN vs. Nutanix since that’s been done here very nicely. Suffice is to say, Nutanix is way ahead of VMware in many, many ways when it comes to the kind of convergence that the companies are trying to achieve.

What about the future?

The article that I linked to earlier indicates that Nutanix and VSAN are really only ready for Tier 2/3 workloads that don’t require monster VMs. I agree with the second point that neither is currently a solution for the monster VM, but that situation is changing rapidly. Nutanix has released new nodes that sport up to 512 GB of RAM per node and VMware is steadily increasing the number of nodes that can participate in a VSAN cluster. As such, as time goes on, hyperconverged solutions should be expected to be able to do just about anything that can be done today.

Further, bear in mind that these are software-defined solutions that happen to leverage commodity hardware. Their software-defined nature means that new features can be added through software updates, so customers will continue to enjoy the innovation that comes as development teams keep working their magic.

As for today, I don’t agree that Nutanix and VSAN – although I really prefer Nutanix due to its maturity – should be relegated to tier 2/3 workloads only. I think that the decision as to where to place hyperconverged solutions rests on workload and organization size. Many SMB/midmarkets can absolutely leverage these solutions for their tier 1 workloads and could, in fact, replace just about everything in their data centers with these solutions. In fact, I showed a fellow CIO Nutanix this past week – he hadn’t heard of it – and his response was twofold: 1) “Holy cow… this is where we’re going”; 2) “Why wouldn’t everyone do this?”

Obviously, different organizations have different needs, and nothing is yet one-size fits all, but as you look at the flexibility that can come from such solutions, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them hit the data center en masse. Today’s data centers need a massive makeover. To much time is spent on too little value-add to the business. Teams of support people, often broken down into specialized resource silos, are tasked with making it all work together. What happens with the architecture works together natively? Fewer people focused on the technology are needed, which opens up the gates to get more people focused on the business, which is really where CEOs want to see IT’s attention anyway. In the short run, there is the potential for people that have had their hands on technology to lose their positions, but in the long-run, IT can become leaner and more focused on meeting business demands.


VSAN has firmly validated the hyperconvergence niche, which promises organizations newer, simpler ways to manage complex data centers and to help shift IT’s focus from hardware to software and business-enablement.

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