Nutanix veep talks HCI, SAN, and AI storage solutions

Interview: We had the opportunity to ask Nutanix about server SAN progress, hyperconverged infrastructure vendor consolidation, VMware and Dell HCI positioning, and its AI intentions. Lee Caswell, SVP of Product and Solutions Marketing, provided the answers.

Blocks & Files: How is it that HCI (server SAN) has not replaced external SAN and file and object storage?

Lee Caswell, Nutanix
Lee Caswell

Lee Caswell: All-flash HCI is actively replacing SAN for all workloads at a pace that is consistent with the conservative nature of storage buyers. New HCI technologies are generally additive, not a wholesale SAN replacement, which allows customers to depreciate prior investments while taking advantage of the more agile and lower cost HCI solution.

NAS and object storage replacement is starting to grow quickly now that very high-capacity storage media and capacity-dense nodes allow scale-out systems to be cost-competitive with traditional scale-up proprietary hardware designs. We expect to see customer adoption accelerate as users consolidate storage architectures to control costs, address talent gaps, and leverage common data services across files, blocks, and objects.

Blocks & Files: How would Nutanix position the strengths and weaknesses of external storage vs HCI?

Lee Caswell: External storage will continue to exist just as UNIX systems persisted when x86 servers took over the compute market. For customers with dedicated storage administrators and the resources to separately maintain storage, server, hypervisor, and network configurations, external storage is a proven, albeit complex, entity. HCI, however, will command higher market growth rates powered by a simplified operating model and the scale economics of commodity servers. 

Cloud spending has shown us that most customers simply want to stop managing storage and get on with their primary objective of speeding the development, deployment, and managing of applications and their associated data. HCI offers a flexible scaling model, a software-defined management model suitable for generalists, and a common operating model across legacy and modern applications with full cloud extensibility that will support the next wave of unstructured data growth.  

Blocks & Files: With Cisco giving up on Springpath, does Nutanix think there will be more consolidation in HCI suppliers’ ranks and why or why not?

Lee Caswell: We’re watching the HCI market evolve very quickly from a narrow on-premises modernization play to an expansive hybrid multicloud platform market. Once customers move to a server-based architecture they start to see their control plane aperture open dramatically. There are very few infrastructure vendors that have the appetite for the engineering investment and the dedicated sales attention required to support a common cloud operating model. 

It also requires an elegant scale-out architecture to deliver a hybrid multicloud platform with a consistent operating model from the edge to the core to the public cloud, across legacy and containerized apps, with full data services including database as a service. Nutanix delivers this seamless experience with one architecture while others are either rearchitecting or, in the Cisco case, partnering with Nutanix. 

Blocks & Files: How would Nutanix position its offerings vs VxRail and, separately, PowerFlex?

Lee Caswell: Nutanix Cloud Platform (NCP) uses a single web-scale architecture with integrated snapshots, replication, and DR that are common underpinnings to all our offerings. Portable licensing allows customers flexibility in moving data and apps at will across servers, including servers in AWS and Azure.  The user experience evident in our NPS of 92 and high renewal rates shows the simplicity of our offering and the excellence of our support organization. The offering includes a distributed file system and object store now recognized by Gartner as a Visionary player

VxRail, by contrast, has two incompatible vSAN architectures with node-locked licenses and different data service offerings. Object stores must be licensed separately from partners along with KMS solutions – both of which are included in NCP. Cloud DR systems are powered by a third architecture (from Datrium) which introduces yet another management layer. 

PowerFlex (formerly ScaleIO) is increasingly being positioned by Dell as a vSAN/VxRail alternative. However, PowerFlex is more accurately a software-defined storage (SDS) offering requiring storage specialists since it is managed by LUN and licensed by TB. Finally, since VMware VCF always requires vSAN for the management domain, introducing PowerFlex adds separate patching, maintenance, and licensing headaches. 

Blocks & Files: How would Nutanix position its offerings as being capable of providing primary storage for AI Training?

Lee Caswell: With our recently released Nutanix GPT-in-a-Box, we provide reliable, secure, and simple AI-ready infrastructure to support LLM and GenAI workloads. LLM and use case specific fine-tuning data is stored on Nutanix Files Storage and Object Storage while block storage is used to run the models for training. Nutanix recently submitted verified files and objects MLPerf Storage Benchmark results (link). Of note was our ability to deliver 25Gbps for NFS to power 65 ML accelerators (GPUs).

Blocks & Files: Ditto AI Inferencing?

Lee Caswell: A powerful feature of Nutanix AI solutions is the ability to optimize resources from core to edge. Training and fine-tuning a model is often more resource-intensive than inferencing and would happen in the core. Inference can happen in the core or at the edge, depending on the application’s needs. This flexibility opens the potential for optimization of resources. Many edge scenarios are sensitive to latency and require high-performance storage systems with the ability to function without an active cloud connection.