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VMware Marvin comes alive as EVO:Rail, a Hyper-Converged Infrastructure Appliance

August 25th, 2014

image image VMware will announce shortly today at VMworld US that it is entering the hyper-converged appliance market with a solution called EVO:Rail. This has been rumoured for a while since an eagle eyed visitor to the VMware campus spotted a sign for Marvin in their briefing center. Marvin was the engineering name and has still stuck around in parts of the product but its grown up name is EVO:Rail.

EVO(lution) is eventually going to be a suite of products/solutions, Rail is the first announcement named for the smallest part of a data center rack, the rail, so you can infer that VMware intends to build this portfolio out to an EVO:RACK and beyond.

EVO:Rail combines compute, storage and networking resources into a hyper-converged infrastructure appliance with the intention to dramatically simplify infrastructure deployment. Hardware wise this is pretty much what Nutanix and Simplivity as two examples do today. Spot the acronym, HCIA, to hunt for newly added VMworld sessions.

VMware is not however entering the hardware business itself, that would kill billions of marketing budget spent on the Software Defined Data Center message of software ruling the world. Partner hardware vendors will be building the appliance to strict specifications with VMware’s EVO:RAIL software bundle pre-installed and the appliance delivered as a single SKU. Some may see this as a technicality. VMware has always said if you need specific  hardware you are not software defined. Does EVO:RAIL count as specific hardware?

Support will be with the hardware vendor for both hardware and software with VMware providing software support to the hardware vendor at the back-end.


VMware touts the advantages of its own software unsurprisingly as a major selling point. Customers can be confident in using the built-in resiliency and compatibility of vSphere. EVO:RAIL has its own management software which works in conjunction with vCenter. Deployment and management have been dramatically simplified to allow customers to get started in as little as 15 minutes.

EVO:RAIL is basically a 2U appliance with 4 compute nodes running ESXi with a single vCenter and some additional EVO:RAIL management software and VSAN as the storage. You can scale up to 4 appliances with a total of 16 ESXi nodes. EVO:RAIL handles the deployment, configuration and management so you can grow the compute and storage automatically as additional appliances are discovered and added. ToR Network switches are not part of the solution but may be bundled as add-ons by hardware partners.


VMware says the primary use-cases are VDI, branch offices as well as virtual private clouds which is what service providers offer to run a managed but dedicated private cloud services in their data center.




So, why is VMware doing this? Hardware partners already sell bundles of hardware and software, converged infrastructure vendors such as VCE with VBlocks and HP with Converged Systems build and ship their own integrated hardware and software stacks and the hyper-converged players such as Nutanix, Simplivity and Scale Computing are doing hyper-converged appliances already.

Part of the reason is a software control issue. I can’t see the VCE alliance lasting for much longer in its current form. With the rise of Microsoft Hyper-V as well as OpenStack, VCE must be wanting to expand into other hypervisors and markets to increase its market share. It can use the same hardware with Cisco and EMC and just swap out the hypervisor software and sell more systems. The alliances are even more complex when you think of Cisco entering storage (Whiptail) and VMware entering SDN (NSX). VBlocks are also for far bigger deployments. Sure you can get a baby VBlock but that still has a rather large cost barrier to entry. HP is able to be far more flexible as it provides both the compute, storage and networking and can put in any software it likes. VBlocks and Converged Systems are certainly going to be superior performance, scalability and options wise than EVO:RAIL. If you need synchronous replication or quicker than 15 minutes replication, more storage snapshots, an all flash array, management across multiple chassis/racks of servers across multiple data centers then EVO:RAIL isn’t for you (for now, perhaps). EVO:RAIL gives VMware a single platform to own, build for and sell through hardware partners into the mid-market which is a large revenue stream.

VMware understands that virtualisation is always a scalable deployment. Everyone wants to start small and build up over time or across other data centers. Many customers only want to purchase what they need in the short term and have the option to easily add to it rather than having to purchase a large system up front and only start using the second half of it a year and a half later as they scale their workloads. Some virtual deployments are getting large enough that customers actually want to split them up to simplify the management and purchasing. VDI separate from Servers, pure PaaS separate from just IaaS, departments/divisions having their own infrastructure. Nutanix and Simplivity understand this smaller incremental building block approach which is the reason they have made such an impact in the market. Companies may run their server virtualisation with EMC and Cisco blades but VDI on Nutanix as its a completely different team that manages it (Nutanix would of course argue you can use their appliances for everything). VMware’s announcement will certainly affect Nutanix and Simplivity. Both will of course say it validates their approach. Both companies are able to support other hypervisors so there’s plenty of scope for more market penetration they must both be annoyed.

Nutanix and Simplivity still have an advantage however in having more mature storage software. EVO:RAIL relies on VSAN which is still a 1.0 product. Sure, VMware will be filling out the features but they are a few years behind. VSAN currently doesn’t have de-duplication, native replication (vSphere Replication only supports 15 minute replication intervals), only does daily snapshots and doesn’t support FT. Simplivity has excellent replication technology including to the cloud and Nutanix can boast some impressive storage performance numbers.

Dell recently decided to OEM with Nutanix so I can’t see them being a EVO:RAIL partner but I could be wrong. (Update I was wrong, Dell is a partner) HP has its successful Lefthand VSA so it will be interesting to see their take on EVO:RAIL as I would think they would certainly want to be hardware partners but don’t want VSAN. Traditionally hardware is a low margin business, VMware will be now be taking the higher margin SAN software money away from the hardware vendors but giving them a direct support contract which would have been with VMware before. I wonder if hardware vendors who are spending the time and money to build a new hardware appliance have to be exclusive for EVO:RAIL. Could they also build appliances for Hyper-V/KVM/OpenStack with this hardware? Interesting times in the hardware world, who would have thought!

Time to explore the two components that make up EVO:Rail which deserve their own posts.

EVO: Rail – Integrated Hardware and Software

EVO: Rail – Management Re-imagined

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