I must admit that I've been as guilty as anyone of talking about the rash of hyper-converged appliances built in partnership with VMware's EVO:RAIL platform as if they were as interchangeable as Gertrude Stein's proverbial roses. But as I was speaking with EMC about its entry into the market, VSPEX Blue, I realized just how hard vendors are trying to differentiate themselves while sticking to VMware's rather specific requirements.
Like all EVO:RAIL systems, VSPEX Blue is a 2U, four-server appliance, with each server sporting a pair of E5-2620 v2 six-core processors, an SSD, and three 1.2 TB disk drives. The only surprise on the hardware front was that EMC was offering a configuration with 128 GB of memory per node in addition to the 192 GB model all the other OEMs offer and that all of VMware's literature about EVO:RAIL describes.
Apparently, the 128 GB option was removed from the EVO:RAIL program at the last minute and EMC got either grandfathered in or special dispensation to sell it. Frankly, on a system costing well over $100,000, having an option that is only $2500 lower isn't much of an advantage for EMC.
Sheer brand value will drive some customers that buy servers from HP or storage from Hitachi Data Systems to choose that vendor's EVO:RAIL solution, and that may be enough for some vendors. The vendors that think they can leverage EVO:RAIL beyond their existing customer bases are bundling additional software with their appliances to plug the gaps in the EVO:RAIL infrastructure. Dell and SuperMicro, for example, are bundling NexentaConnect for Virtual SAN with their systems to provide file services.
EMC's gone a step further, bundling limited licenses for vSphere Data Protection Advanced (which is based on EMC's own Avamar), backup software CloudArray (the cloud storage gateway acquired with TwinStrata), and RecoverPoint for VMs for wide area replication and continuous data protection. They're even setting up an application store, though I'm pretty sure it will be limited to EMC applications for a while.
Becoming an EVO:RAIL OEM presented some unique challenges to EMC. While many of EMC's storage products -- including Atmos, Isilon, and ECS -- are based industry standard x86 servers, VSPEX BLUE is the first time customers will run their workloads on EMC servers. That means EMC not only has to ramp up to provide server hardware support, but is also entering the server market, where gross profit margins are smaller than the 50%+ storage vendors typically enjoy.
EMC's solution to the margin problem is perhaps the most interesting part of the story. While EMC's vaunted sales force and channel partners will collect orders for VSPEX Blue, like EMC and VCE's other VSPEX solutions, the product is less of an appliance EMC will ship directly to customers and more of a recipe that the company's distribution partners Arrow, Avnet, and Tech Data can use to build the systems.
The distribution partners buy the components and processors from Intel, the disk drives from Seagate, the server chassis from Foxconn, and the software bundle from EMC. Since EMC never owns the hardware, they don't get stuck with the low-margin server sale. Distributors are happy because this kind of assembly work adds value and gives them higher margins than simply shipping boxes.
EMC's got the process tied down tightly enough that the systems report data like disk drive serial numbers and firmware versions back to EMC during assembly. This allows the support organization to be proactive about required updates and the like.
While EVO:RAIL appliances are at first glance as interchangeable as the bricks we commonly call them, several of the OEMs are doing their best to stand out from the crowd. I'm sure EVO:RAIL will be a big success, and it will be interesting to see how customers choose their EVO:RAIL vendors.
Disclosure: Of the companies mentioned in this post, Dell and EMC were clients of DeepStorage, LLC, more than two years ago.
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