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Hyperconvergence isn't about hardware: It's server-makers becoming software companies

Clouds sell compute by the glass. On-premises kitmakers want to sell wine-as-a-service

Wine Taps by N Wong, Flickr, CC 2.0 License

Public cloud is supposed to be a mortal threat to enterprise hardware vendors, whose wares look clunky and costly compared to a servers-for-an-hour-for-cents cloud and the threat looks scary … until you actually use a public cloud for a while.

The Reg increasingly hears that the cost of operating in a public cloud quickly adds up to sums that make on-premises kit look decently-priced. Communications costs to and from public clouds can quickly reach the same level as compute costs, which rather dents the servers-for-cents story. Compute itself isn't cheap, either, once you do lots of it. Nor is storage. Then there's the other stuff needed to run real workloads, like firewalls, load balancers, WAN optimisation and so on. They all cost cents-per-hour, too and once you're not just doing test and dev in the public cloud you need them all. Those cents-per-hour add up.

So while public cloud does have a very low sticker price, once you work at a decent scale operational costs soon get pretty close to on-premises levels.

The gap comes from the fact that public clouds do excuse you from cabling, powering and cooling kit, fixing stuck fans, swapping out dead disks and a zillion other pieces of dull meatspace sysadminnery. Cloud also has massive redundancy that on-premises kit can't match and elasticity that is tough to replicate in your own bit barn.

Yet meatspace sysadminnery is still justifiable for many reasons, such as security and/or amelioration of state surveillance risk, regulatory compliance, latency, comfort or because you need to do stuff public clouds don't do well.

Roll out the barrel

The folks at Nutanix have come up with an interesting analogy to describe this situation. They liken the public cloud to a restaurant or bar where you can buy wine by the glass. Even if you really like the wine, going out for a glass every night makes no sense. It's more sensible to buy a case you can drink at home. You'll get the same wine, at a lower price, with more convenience and comfort.

Nutanix's argument is based on the company's belief that its kit does most of the elasticity and redundancy of a public cloud. It's far from alone in the belief it delivers a cloud-like experience – all enterprise hardware makers are trying to deliver a simpler, more reliable experience with easy scalability - so the wine-by-the-glass/wine-by-the-case analogy works for plenty of vendors.

The analogy also, in your correspondent's opinion, is more broadly applicable than the “servers should be cattle, not pets” taxonomy that suggests servers are herd animals that don't deserve individual love and attention. Microsoft figured that out when it had to tweak Azure Pack for a finite pool of hardware, rather than the ocean of servers Redmond and a handful of others can afford to operate. Most of us can only afford pets, or a small herd of well-tended beasts one needs to know by name.

The analogy also hits trouble when one considers that wine is a finite resource: once the bottle's empty the bottle's empty. Hardware-makers instead aspire to become sellers of wine-as-a-service, because by bottling the cloud experience and making sure it is on tap they're in with a better chance of remaining relevant.

Of course doing so means they're really software companies, not hardware companies. Nutanix knows it's a software-company-in-waiting. CEO Deeraj Pandey told me last week that hardware was a necessity in its early days because customers want a vendor to take responsibility for more than the management layer.

But Nutanix has already released a software-only Community Edition. UCS Director is as important to Cisco as its elegantly-designed servers and chassis. SimpliVity's schtick is that bundling more software into a converged rig delivers more value. Even Microsoft's in on the act with Cloud Platform System.

The kit-makers signing up for VMware's EVO:RAIL have learned the same lesson in a different way, by realising that software can turn them into server vendors. Even the likes of Unisys get it: the company can sell you its Forward platform as software if you really want it dis-integrated from hardware.

Stop us if you've heard this one before, from every management software vendor, ever, but remember that such vendors tried to add value to hardware. Hardware-makers didn't mind that, because no matter how many layers sat on top of their kit, users still needed the kit.

This time around hardware-makers are having to make sure they have a reason to exist so are fighting harder to stay alive. Those efforts should make for a fine vintage users will enjoy drinking, by the glass, by the bottle or with a mouth beneath a tap. ®

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