EMC Debuts VSPEX Reference Architecture, Targets NetApp's FlexPod Business

EMC Thursday unveiled VSPEX, its first reference architecture for building converged infrastructures that integrate storage, server, networking, and virtualization, and claimed it will in no way impact sales of the pre-configured Vblock converged solutions produced by VCE, its joint venture with partner Cisco.

With VSPEX, EMC jumps into a new battle with archrival storage vendor NetApp, whose FlexPod reference architecture has done well against VCE's Vblocks.

At the same time, the multi-vendor VSPEX reference architecture, which includes both Cisco and non-Cisco equipment, also gives EMC the opportunity to counter-balance moves by its long-term partner Cisco, which has benefited by working with NetApp in the FlexPod business.

[Related: EMC, NetApp Present Competing Visions For Storage-Server Infrastructure ]

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EMC is positioning VSPEX as the alternative to the "build-your-own" storage business where customers and their solution providers configure converged infrastructure solutions on their own, as well as to the structured, pre-configured Vblock offerings from VCE, said Gregg Ambulos, EMC's senior vice president of global channel sales.

"When Vblock was launched, the goal was to offer the highest level of simplicity for the greatest control and management," Ambulos said. "VSPEX offers the flexibility of build-your-own with the value of Vblock."

The need for a flexible, vendor-sponsored reference architecture such as EMC's VSPEX or NetApp's FlexPod is open for debate, said Jamie Shepard, executive vice president of technology solutions at ICI, a Marlborough, Mass.-based solution provider and long-term EMC partner.

Reference architectures have been developed by solution providers for years to marry the storage, compute, networking, and virtualization layers specific to customer requirements, Shepard said.

"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."

Channel partners are supposed to architect customer solutions based on specific needs, Shepard said.

"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,'" he said. "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.

Shepard also said that reference architectures are late to the market. "A customer who needs a reference architecture doesn't really need it," he said. "They need the cloud."

NEXT: Selling The Flexibility Of VSPEX

Steve Kaplan, vice president of the data center virtualization practice at Presidio Networked Solutions, a Greenbelt, Md.-based solution provider, called EMC's VSPEX a very good strategy.

"VSPEX provides clients with design flexibility," Kaplan said. "If a customer application doesn't exactly meet a Vblock specification, it would be a shame to lose the opportunity or force the customer into a different type of solution."

Ambulos said that VSPEX is actually a way for solution providers to add value to their customers' IT infrastructures while taking advantage of the configuration development done by EMC.

"This is a solution sell," he said. "Partners are seen as trusted advisors to customers. This actually provides 'stickiness' with customers. VSPEX is a recipe. The partners are working with pre-validated solutions. But partners still provide the sizing and the deployment."

VSPEX is a series of 14 configurations that EMC considers to represent the biggest potential for helping customers move to cloud computing.

At the storage level, the configurations leverage EMC's VNX and VNXe entry-level storage arrays at launch time, said Josh Kahn, EMC vice president of solutions marketing. Other VSPEX configurations will eventually include EMC's Data Domain, Avamar, and Networker storage technologies. EMC's VMAX enterprise array may also become part of VSPEX in the future, Kahn said.

On the compute side, EMC's VSPEX reference architecture includes Cisco UCS servers, but is can work with any vendors' Intel x86 processor-based servers, including white-box servers, Kahn said.

The networking layer will include options from both Cisco and from Brocade, giving Brocade an opportunity to work closely with EMC after being shut out of the VCE Vblock offerings.

This differs dramatically from VCE Vblocks which only provide options for Cisco UCS servers and Cisco networking technology.

VSPEX will include server virtualization options from VMware, which is owned by EMC, as well as from VMware rivals Microsoft and Citrix, and VMware View and Citrix XenDesktop options for desktop virtualization.

The initial 14 VSPEX configurations will provide 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, Kahn said.

NEXT: VSPEX Options Now And Going Forward

Over time, EMC will expand the VSPEX configurations with other vendors depending on customer feedback, Kahn said.

"That may cause us to expand to AMD chips, but at the present time AMD is not included," he said. "We may also expand our technology alliances and extend our preferred partners in specific layers. Again, those expansions will be based on customer and partner input. The one place we don't expect to offer additional (vendor) options is in the storage and backup layer."

Solution providers will have two options in terms of how they implement the VSPEX reference architecture, including ordering the different components specified by the "blueprint" and configuring it themselves, or working with one of several distributors who will can integrate and test the solutions before sending them to the customer site.

Four distributors in the U.S., including Arrow ECS, Avnet Technology Solutions, Ingram Micro, and Tech Data, will shortly offer that service to solution providers.

One of those, Avnet, already configures FlexPod solutions for solution providers.

Scott Look, vice president and general manager for Avnet's Technology Infrastructure Solutions Group, said assembly of VSPEX-based solutions will be carried out by a completely different team from that which assembles FlexPod-based solutions.

Look said the importance of a reference architecture like VSPEX is the work that went on behind the scenes validating the configurations.

"There's value in terms of shortening the sales cycle and cutting down on errors because of the validated configurations," he said.

Pete Koliopoulos, vice president of North American marketing at Arrow ECS, said his company will work to get EMC Velocity channel program partners to look at solutions based on VSPEX and on Arrow's configuration capabilities -- even those partners who require components that Arrow currently does not carry.

"For instance, we don't have Cisco as a stand-alone component, but we do work with Cisco as part of our VCE business," Koliopoulos said. "So a partner may buy the EMC and VMware components from us and Cisco from someone else and still come to us to do the integration. This thing is so flexible in the way we build it."

Don Hoppock, director of Ingram Micro's Advanced Computing Division, said his company is already integrating its own vBundle reference architecture based on EMC storage for partners, and is drawing on that experience to work with EMC's VSPEX.

"We've been working with Nexus, a Valencia, Calif.-based solution provider, on a beta program to vet the process," Hoppock said. "We're ready to go."

While Ingram Micro does not carry Brocade in its product lineup, it can get the Brocade gear through its EMC relationship, Hoppock said.

NEXT: Could VSPEX Cannibalize VCE Vblock Sales?

Because EMC supports the rigid configurations of Vblocks from VCE, into which it has invested several hundred million dollars, as well as the flexible configurations of VSPEX, there are concerns that EMC could be competing with VCE or at the very least cannibalizing sales from that company with its new architecture.

Kahn said cannibalization of VCE sales is not likely.

"When a customer is choosing a Vblock, it is choosing the maximum in simplicity," he said. "One configuration, one source of support. We don't see VSPEX lessening demand for Vblocks. We see this as expanding the market to provide more options for customers and partners. We actually expect to see a rapid shift from build-you-own to VSPEX."

Presidio's Kaplan said he does not think cannibalization of VCE sales will happen with EMC's VSPEX.

"I think customers who buy Vblock understand the tremendous value they get from a pre-configured converged infrastructure," he said. "If they understand that distinction, they won't be dissuaded by a flexible architecture. So VSPEX sales won't cannibalize Vblock. They will supplement Vblock sales. VSPEX is more about head-to-head competition with FlexPod."

Kahn agreed that EMC is aiming VSPEX at NetApp's FlexPod market.

He laughed at the "FlexPod" name. "We joke that it's not flexible, and it's not a pod," he said. "With VSPEX, customers can chose any server or networking."

Ambulos said EMC is investing heavily in supporting solution providers with its VSPEX offering. The company will provide marketing support to help drive sales, and will provide financing for the purchase of all the needed components from the different vendors, he said.

While there will be no single technical support hotline for VSPEX as there is with VCE, EMC expects solution providers to be able to provide the first line of customer support while relying on the individual vendors to support whatever products appear to be causing issues, Ambulos said.

"There's no single number to call like there is for Vblock," he said. "But the team has done a great job of setting this up."

EMC has set up a deal registration process for VSPEX, and will provide additional solution provider incentives for VSPEX sales above the normal EMC incentives, Ambulos said.