VCE finds itself in the middle of a battlefield where its staunchest allies are also among its fiercest enemies.
Understanding why VCE is a hot topic means understanding the all-consuming, industry-wide battle over networking and data center convergence. No question it's something in which almost all of the IT channel's top vendors, from Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems to EMC, Dell, IBM, VMware, Oracle, Juniper and Microsoft, are involved, because it represents a potentially $350 billion to $500 billion total addressable market over the next decade, according to various analyst estimates.
When exactly the convergence battle began is debatable, but as soon as it became clear that server virtualization would be a dominant, paradigm-shifting force -- and that storage virtualization, desktop virtualization and network virtualization were soon to follow -- various vendors began to align their strategies to focus on cloud infrastructure and consolidated, optimized data center architecture.
Those vendors bought companies, they built products, they integrated, validated and, most of all, marketed like crazy. Arguably the most dramatic entry of new technology into the space during this time period happened in March 2009 with the launch of Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS).
UCS, which ties Cisco data center networking with storage access, virtualization and rack-mounted or blade servers, was a seminal move that thrust Cisco into the heat of the data center showdown as a new server vendor. This aggressive move came with such side effects as Cisco's now-bitter competition with former strategic partner HP. And from the UCS came the idea of leveraging it with complementary storage, virtualization and infrastructure technologies -- Cisco successfully steered the data center conversation toward architecture and the idea of selling validated architecture.
VCE was born of those early collaborations with EMC and VMware. While the original VCE coalition was focused on developing a reference architecture for cloud computing infrastructure, partners were seeing the market move toward something far more tightly converged -- a fully loaded data center stack with a rock-solid management interface and enough engineering know-how to make updates and future-proofing as painless as possible. And that's what channel partners and customers get with VCE: the tightest possible integration, and something that the partners and customers can't really tinker with.
VBLOCK VS. FLEXPOD How Vblock sales work at present is that solution providers go after VCE deals and pass along customer requirements to VCE, which builds the infrastructure according to those requirements. What arrives for customers -- what VCE pledges to provide in about 30 days -- is a pre-tested, completely configured stack, quite literally, a data center in a box, with the management tools and the promise of as-needed updates to support it.
"When [EMC Chairman and CEO] Joe Tucci and [Cisco Chairman and CEO] John Chambers created their joint venture, it was because they saw a market opportunity, and that as individual companies, they could not go after that market opportunity," VCE's Todd Pavone said. "We don't stop enough to look back at how much has been accomplished, but they were right in that this should be all about enabling our partners in a highly differentiated solution."
Average Vblock deal sizes are "well over a million dollars," Pavone said, and more than half of VCE's partners are achieving those deals. VCE's contention is that solution providers can make more money selling fully configured Vblocks to overcome the fact that they're losing out on the integration and services revenue that would come from building a data center based on a reference architecture, and that customers are winning because they receive an infrastructure that's been engineered to meet their specific needs, pre-tested, easy to manage, and the old saw of "one throat to choke."
"Some people are turned off that VCE/Vblock is so rigid," said Gary Alexander, CEO of Alexander Open Systems, an Overland Park, Kan.-based solution provider. "But some awfully great things do come along with that rigidity. You get one call you make for support and experts that can help with that and managed releases about every six months specific to your configuration. It almost harkens back to the mainframe days when you had regression testing. All the pieces and parts are going to work together, and you've got periodic updates fine-tuned for that configuration."
If Vblock were the only converged data center game in town, VCE might be more dominant. But there are a range of converged infrastructure plays involving HP, Dell, Brocade and many others that compete with the Vblock vision. Its most direct competitor is the FlexPod model, which offers a reference architecture for building that converged infrastructure based on Cisco UCS and networking, VMware virtualization, and NetApp storage, instead of EMC.
FlexPod, which entered general availability roughly two years ago, has fast become a feather in the cap for NetApp, which positions itself as an aggressive challenger and a nimbler, more partner-friendly counterpoint to EMC in the storage space. It's had it's problems -- NetApp's third-quarter product results, reported in August, were tepid at best while EMC's midmarket storage systems, the VNX/VNXe, grew significantly -- but FlexPod's embrace has been wide, according to NetApp and its partners.
Peter Howard, NetApp's senior director, data center alliances, told CIO customer attendees at solution provider ePlus' National Sales Conference in May that NetApp is selling an average of two FlexPods a day. EMC's argument against that is that what can be actually called a FlexPod varies significantly -- it's a reference architecture, not a rigidly defined stack -- allowing NetApp to bump up those numbers.
"They can call practically anything a FlexPod," said Leonard Iventosch, EMC's vice president of Americas sales channels, in an August interview with CRN.
Solution providers think of the two offerings, Vblock and FlexPod, in terms of customer buying decisions. David Hekimian, CTO at Trace3, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider, said those decisions are made by two different types of people: the IT person and the non-IT person.
"Vblock is a CIO-level buy," he said. "FlexPods are bought below the CIO level."
The appeal of FlexPods is their flexibility, he said, allowing IT groups to build them in what they feel is the right way. That is not how Vblocks are seen at the CIO level, he said.
"If a customer sees IT as not enabling the business, if it sees a P.O. (purchase order) for every request, IT is seen as a hindrance," he said. "The CIO may say, 'I'll buy a Vblock. It comes with support for 2,000 VMs (virtual machines). If there's a problem, I have one throat to choke. I don't need to rely on my people to solve it.'"
Bob Olwig, vice president of business strategy and marketing at World Wide Technology, a St. Louis-based solution provider, also sees the benefit of partnering on both types of solution sets.
"We sell both FlexPod and Vblock. FlexPod has the benefit of being a more open offering, more of a reference architecture. There are a lot of instances of NetApp storage and Cisco UCS being sold together. They have the benefits of counting more implementations as 'FlexPod,'" Olwig said. "But Vblock features a set number of SKUs which qualify as Vblocks. What's not being counted is UCS being sold into an EMC environment, which happens quite often."
Kent MacDonald, vice president of business development at Long View Systems, a top North America solution provider and integrator based in Calgary, agreed there are customer use cases for each.
"We see some customers that would never look at FlexPod, and some for whom Vblock would not at all be appropriate," he said. "More and more we see Vblock stood up as private clouds, not being integrated as existing infrastructure. It's a turn-the-page, let's-start-over-again move, rather than a bolt on."
Several solution providers that sell both VCE Vblock and FlexPod say they've seen success with both models. Long View, in fact, has grown not only Vblock and FlexPod sales in the past year, but also HP's CloudSystem Matrix, too. Vblock customers have pretty sophisticated IT requirements, he said.
"There are different business motivators. SAP applications -- particularly HANA -- have been a predominant driver -- standing up that new workload -- as have companies going through a merger or acquisition with a short window to stand up [infrastructure] or consolidate," MacDonald explained.
"SAP is a very complex application and the infrastructure to run it is very costly," VCE's Pavone said. "If you can go into a customer and say, 'we're going to help you run SAP at 50 percent better performance,' that is transformational."
EMC's VSPEX HEDGE There are other factors at work, next to the emerging Vblock/FlexPod competition. In April, EMC introduced VSPEX -- a reference architecture for building converged infrastructure using EMC storage with a range of other vendors' servers, networking and virtualization technology. From the second EMC confirmed VSPEX's existence, channel partners were once again left to question the motivations: wouldn't EMC launching a FlexPod-like reference architecture -- one that competes with Vblock -- suggest EMC wasn't all that confident in Vblock?
"VSPEX surely will compete with Vblock," Keith Norbie, vice president at Nexus Information Systems, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based solution provider, told CRN in April. "But it furthers the process of EMC realizing they're not so focused on the storage side and are now more focused on the cloud side."
Jamie Shepard, executive vice president at ICI, a Marlborough, Mass.-based solution provider, agreed that VSPEX, as EMC's first reference architecture, would be at odds with the VCE model.
"Everything being said about VSPEX is, it's the processor, the storage, the networking," Shepard said. "And it's open. VSPEX is offering choice. VCE is about raw virtual provisioning and compute power, not choice. To me, VSPEX is a VCE competitor."
But Shepard noted that solution providers have developed reference architectures for years to marry the storage, compute, networking, and virtualization layers specific to customer requirements. They miss the point, he said, because customer requirements are, by nature, specific.
"Engineers on my end scratch their heads over vendors' reference architectures," he said. "Why would a vendor want to come out with a reference architecture before a sale is made? You need to consult with customers first to understand their requirements. No one in the channel goes to the customer and says, 'How many VMs do you want? OK, that fits into this FlexPod or VSPEX.' No one is doing this. You need up-front consulting."
For instance, Shepard said, a customer may have previously implemented NetApp storage, Cisco servers and networking, and VMware virtualization, and a partner could after-the-fact call it a "FlexPod."
VSPEX is a series of 14 configurations. At the storage level, the configurations leverage EMC's VNX and VNXe entry-level storage arrays, and will eventually include EMC's Data Domain, Avamar, and Networker storage technologies, and possibly its VMAX enterprise array.
On the compute side, EMC's VSPEX reference architecture includes Cisco UCS servers, but it can work with any vendors' Intel x86 processor-based servers, including white-box servers. In addition to Cisco, EMC plans to incorporate a networking layer option for Brocade, giving Brocade an opportunity to work closely with EMC after being shut out of the VCE Vblock offerings.
VSPEX supports server virtualization options from VMware, with plans to add support for VMware rivals Microsoft and Citrix, plus VMware View and Citrix XenDesktop options for desktop virtualization.
Plans for the initial 14 VSPEX configurations, which are still being rolled out, included the base for five different solutions, including VMware View or Citrix XenDesktop virtual desktop solutions for 250 to 2,000 users; a VMware-based private cloud for up to 125 or 250 virtual machines; and a VMware-based or Microsoft Hyper-V-based private cloud for 50 or 100 virtual machines, according to EMC.
BEYOND REFERENCE ARCHITECTURE EMC maintains that VSPEX and Vblock are complementary, fundamentally addressing different needs for customers that want full-fledged integration versus customers that want a blueprint and instruction book. But from VCE's perspective, Vblock's tight integration means it provides an experience far beyond what customers see from a reference architecture or validated design.
"You can't upgrade a reference architecture," VCE's Pavone told CRN in April. "If you deploy a reference architecture, there's no upgrade path. You can't do the necessary testing and validation to ensure nothing is broken. We ensure that. We do that interoperability and testing. With a reference architecture, seamless support is impossible. With VBlock, the customer gets one box."
Because VCE can do those things and also deliver them quickly, Pavone argued, Vblock is a game-changer.
"No disrespect to FlexPod or VSPEX, but you're just not going to get that with them," he said. "You're not going to get a new system that's tested and ready. We ship Vblocks to customers in the morning and in some cases by the afternoon, they're putting workloads on it. That's our unique value." NetApp executives, meanwhile, are only too happy to tout FlexPod as the more channel friendly, more flexible alternative to either VSPEX or Vblock.
"Happy Vblock customers can be found. There's no denying that. Trying to deny that would be like trying to deny there are happy EMC customers," said James Sangster, senior director of solutions marketing at NetApp. "But for a long-term cost model, working with Cisco like we do is a better model than a joint venture from a shareholder perspective."
Sangster compared FlexPod, VSPEX, and Vblock using Goldilocks and the Three Bears as an analogy, calling the Vblock "too firm" in its configurations and channel model, and VSPEX "too soft" because of a lack of a unified support model.
"VSPEX is the bed that's too soft," he said. "VCE has been nailing FlexPod for not having an 800 number or single support. But VSPEX is really just business as usual. VCE is far too rigid. It started as a direct model, and then backpedalled into the channel. FlexPod is just right. It scales from large to small installations. Everything works together."
When Sangster called VSPEX "business as usual," he meant that it is similar to the reference architectures offered by many vendors, including NetApp's Validated Architecture, which goes beyond the company's Cisco relationship from FlexPod to make it easy to pull together any combination of IT equipment through NetApp's Solution Builder back-end configuration tool.
"So if a customer wants HP servers, Brocade switches, NetApp storage, and Oracle, Solution Builder can pull it all together and provide a single document to the customer," he said. "I don't really see anything unique with VSPEX. FlexPod has support wrapped around it. With VSPEX, support is just like normal. Normal is OK. But it's not the same as wrapping support around FlexPod."
Sangster cited three differences between FlexPod and VSPEX. The first is that FlexPod provides a top-to-bottom architecture of large to small infrastructures that can communicate with each other. The second is a growing ecosystem of management and orchestration partners that allow customers to continue using existing management platforms such as CA or new platforms such as Cloupia with their FlexPods. The third is the cooperative support arrangement between NetApp and Cisco, which Sangster said is much better than an 800 number.
VMWARE's NICIRA GRAB Cisco and EMC had already hedged their bets with VCE thanks to both the FlexPod and VSPEX launches. But throughout 2012 has come even more evidence that each company wants to keep the other honest.
Cisco is June signed an OEM agreement with Fusion IO, an emerging maker of high-performance PCIe flash storage adapters, intending to use Fusion-IO's technology in its Unified Computing System (UCS) servers. But Cisco already had an agreement in place with EMC and LSI for those companies' VFCache technology, raising questions about how Cisco would favor which PCIe flash storage adapter technology where.
The two companies downplayed the announcement, voicing support for the other, saying all the right things to preserve their simpatico relationship.
But it's been a lot more difficult for either company to downplay Nicira.
In July 2012, VMware plunked down $1.2 billion to acquire Nicira, a company that at that point had become the most buzzed-about software-defined networking (SDN) startup thanks to savvy marketing, a big-splash launch behind its Network Virtualization System in February with a host of major customers, and a number of executive defections to its ranks from the likes of Cisco, Juniper and Palo Alto Networks. The price tag was a whopper -- it represented more than 25 times what Nicira's venture capital take had been up until that point -- but the implications might be even bigger: VMware, majority-owned by EMC, bought a company that will potentially compete with Cisco in virtualized networking.
Both Cisco and VMware have sought to cushion that blow with public displays of affection. The companies announced deeper integration between VMware vSphere and Cisco's Nexus 1000V switch line at August's VMworld, for example. But in a recent interview with CRN, Rob Lloyd, president of development and sales at Cisco, made it clear Cisco considers VMware/Nicira a competitor.
Cisco has urged its worldwide salesforce to "compartmentalize" Cisco's ecosystem relationships, and acknowledges -- purely from a non-emotional business standpoint, as Lloyd put it -- that vendors like IBM, Microsoft and VMware are both Cisco partners and competitors.
"It's a complex ecosystem out there," Lloyd told CRN. "Today's ecosystems are more gray-area. So, let's not get confused. Most of what we've done is that we have strategically partnered. There is a competitive side to this Nicira [deal] with VMware that has the potential to be competitive to some of the activities we do. And Microsoft, boy, do we want to compete with those guys. But remember that Hyper V and Systems Center are also key applications our customers want to run. We're encouraging our teams to compartmentalize."
Cisco, for its part, isn't exactly staying out of VMware's house, either. Cisco earlier this year confirmed it provided $100 million in seed money to Insiemi, a so-called spin-in company -- in which Cisco floats the startup cash and supplies the engineering talent for a hot technology, planning to later acquire the startup -- focused on SDN, and rumored to be tackling both virtualized networking and potentially, storage-type functions, too.
None of this is surprising to longtime Cisco observers who have watched how the company's cloud strategy has taken shape over the past four years. Indeed, Cisco's support for VCE and its alliance with EMC might have been doomed from the get-go (see sidebar, "For Cisco, Is VCE Just A Stopover On The Way To The Cloud?").
For now, Cisco and EMC have agreed to be frenemies, said one solution provider, who asked not to be identified.
"Cisco's hedged its bet with NetApp, and I know some people within Cisco would say that's easier to sell, as is VSPEX. As for VSPEX, you can't blame EMC for reacting to NetApp -- their motivation is to push back against NetApp. EMC and Cisco," the solution provider said. "You know how it is. They love each other, they don't love each other."