Nutanix and Plexxi – An Affinity to Converge

nutanix-logo

Nutanix has been lighting the hyperconverged world on fire as of late. Strong sales led to a big IPO for their stock. They are in a lot of conversations about using their solution in place of large traditional virtualization offerings that include things like blade servers or big boxes. And even coming off the recent Nutanix .NEXT conference there were some big announcements in the networking arena to help them complete their total solution. However, I think Nutanix is missing a big opportunity that’s right in front of them.

I think it’s time for Nutanix to buy Plexxi.

Software Says

If you look at the Nutanix announcements around networking from .NEXT, they look very familiar to anyone in the server space. The highlights include service chaining, microsegmentation, and monitoring all accessible through an API. If this sounds an awful lot like VMware NSX, Cisco ACI, or any one of a number of new networking companies then you are in the right mode of thinking as far as Nutanix is concerned.

SDN in the server space is all about overlay networking. Segmentation of flows and service chaining are the reason why security is so hard to do in the networking space today. Trying to get traffic to behave in a certain way drives networking professionals nuts. Monitoring all of that to ensure that you’re actually doing what you say you’re doing just adds complexity. And the API is the way to do all of that without having to walk down to the data center to console into a switch and learn a new non-Linux CLI command set.

SDN vendors like VMware and Cisco ACI would naturally have jumped onto these complaints and difficulties in the networking world and both have offered solutions for them with their products. For Nutanix to have bundled solutions like this into their networking offering is no accident. They are looking to battle VMware head-to-head and need to offer the kind of feature parity that it’s going to take a make medium to large shops shift their focus away from the VMware ecosystem and take a long look at what Nutanix is offering.

In a way, Nutanix and VMware are starting to reinforce the idea that the network isn’t a magical realm of protocols and tricks that make applications work. Instead, it’s a simple transport layer between locations. For instance, Amazon doesn’t rely on the magic of the interstate system to get your packages from the distribution center to your home. Instead, the interstate system is just a transport layer for their shipping overlays – UPS, FedEX, and so on. The overlay is where the real magic is happening.

Nutanix doesn’t care what your network looks like. They can do almost everything on top of it with their overlay protocols. That would seem to suggest that the focus going forward should be to marginalize or outright ignore the lower layers of the network in favor of something that Nutanix has visibility into and can offer control and monitoring of. That’s where the Plexxi play comes into focus.

Plexxi Logo

Affinity for Awesome

Plexxi has long been a company in search of a way to sell what they do best. When I first saw them years ago, they were touting their Affinities idea as a way to build fast pathways between endpoints to provide better performance for applications that naturally talked to each other. This was a great idea back then. But it quickly got overshadowed by the other SDN solutions out there. It even caused Plexxi to go down a slightly different path for a while looking at other options to compete in a market that they didn’t really have a perfect fit product.

But the Affinities idea is perfect for hyperconverged solutions. Companies like Nutanix are marking their solutions as the way to create application-focused compute nodes on-site without the need to mess with the cloud. It’s a scalable solution that will eventually lead to having multiple nodes in the future as your needs expand. Hyperconverged was designed to be consumable per compute unit as opposed to massively scaling out in leaps and bounds.

Plexxi Affinities is just the tip of the iceberg. Plexxi’s networking connectivity also gives Nutanix the ability to build out a high-speed interconnect network with one advantage – noninterference. I’m speaking about what happens when a customer needs to add more networking ports to support this architecture. They need to make a call to their Networking Vendor of Choice. In the case of Cisco, HPE, or others, that call will often involve a conversation about what they’re doing with the new network followed by a sales pitch for their hyperconverged solution or a partner solution that benefits both companies. Nutanix has a reputation for being the disruptor in traditional IT. The more they can keep their traditional competitors out of the conversation, the more likely they are to keep the business into the future.


Tom’s Take

Plexxi is very much a company with an interesting solution in need of a friend. They aren’t big enough to really partner with hyperconverged solutions, and most of the hyperconverged market at this point is either cozy with someone else or not looking to make big purchases. Nutanix has the rebel mentality. They move fast and strike quickly to get their deals done. They don’t take prisoners. They look to make a splash and get people talking. The best way to keep that up is to bundle a real non-software networking component alongside a solution that will make the application owners happy and keep the conversation focused on a single source. That’s how Cisco did it back and the day and how VMware has climbed to the top of the virtualization market.

If Nutanix were to spend some of that nice IPO money on a Plexxi Christmas present, I think 2017 would be the year that Nutanix stops being discussed in hushed whispers and becomes a real force to be reckoned with up and down the stack.

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That’s Using Your Embrane

BrainInABox

Cisco announced their intent to acquire Embrane last week. Since they did it on April 1st, there was an initial thought that it might be a prank. But given that Cisco doesn’t really do April Fools jokes, it was quickly determined to be the real deal. More importantly, the Embrane acquistion plugs a very important hole in ACI that I have been worried about for a while.

Everybody Play Nice

Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) is a great idea that works on the principle that Cisco can get multiple disparate systems to work together to “program” the underlying network to rapidly deploy applications and create policies that allow systems to be provisioned and reconfigured with a minimum of effort.

That’s a great idea in theory. And if you’re only working with Cisco gear it’s any easy thing to pull off. Provided you can easily integrate the ASA operating system with IOS and NX-OS. That’s not an easy chore and all those business units work for the same company. Can you imagine how hard it would be to integrate with an external third party? Even one that is friendly to Cisco? What about a company that only implements the bare minimum functionality to make ACI operational?

ACI is predicated on the idea that all the systems in the network are going to work together to accomplish the goal of policy programming. That starts falling apart when systems are difficult to integrate or refuse to be a part of ACI. Sure, you could program around them. It wouldn’t take much to do an end run around an unruly switch or router. But what about a firewall or load balancer?

Those devices are more important to security and scalability of an application. You can’t just cut them out. You may even have regulations that require you to include them inline with the application. That means headaches if you are forced to work with something that won’t completely integrate.

Bring Your Own Toys

Enter Embrane. Embrane’s helios platform gives Cisco a stable of software firewalls and load balancers that can be spun up and deployed as needed on-demand. That means that unruly hardware can be bypassed when necessary. If your firewall doesn’t like ACI or won’t implement the shims needed to make them play nice, all you need to do is spin up an Embrane firewall. Since Embrane was integrating with ACI even before the acquistion, you know that everything is going to work just fine.

You can also use the Embrane Elastic Services Manager (ESM) to help manage those devices and reclaim them as needed. That sounds like a no-brainer, but if you ever find yourself booting a virtual system on a cluster that has charge-back enabled, or worse booting it on a public cloud provider and forgetting about it, you’ll find that using a lifecycle manager to avoid hundreds or thousands of dollars in charges is a great idea. ESM can also help you figure out how utilized your devices are and gives your a roadmap to add capacity when it’s needed. That way you never have to answer a phone call complaining the new application is running “slow”.


Tom’s Take

Embrane’s acquisition makes all the sense in the world. Cisco had put up a stake in the company in their last funding round. That could be seen as an initial investment to keep Embrane working down the ACI path instead of moving off onto other ideas. Now, Cisco makes good on that investment by bringing the Embrane team back in house, for a while at least. Cisco gets a braintrust that knows how to make on-demand SDN work.

It’s no shock that Embrane is going to be rolled into the INSBU that houses Insieme. These two teams are going to be working together very closely in the coming months to push the Embrane technology into the core of ACI and provide it as an offering to get potential customers off the fence and into the solution. More options for configuring policy based networks is always a great carrot for customers. Overcoming objections about incompatible hardware makes selling the software of ACI a no brainer.