FlexPod vs. Vblock: How the integrated IT stacks stack up

EMC and NetApp partner with Cisco and VMware for their integrated storage stacks, but the management, support and sales strategies are different.

Integrated stacks are starting to gain traction in storage. They are mainly aimed at organizations that want preconfigured and pretested systems for highly virtualized environments. These stacks combine storage, hypervisors, networking and management as an alternative to building best-of-breed systems.

For the largest pure-play storage vendors, EMC Corp. and NetApp Inc., having integrated bundles requires partnering for the server virtualization and networking resources. Both storage vendors have turned to VMware and Cisco as partners, but they bring their prepackaged bundles to market in different ways.

NetApp offers FlexPod, a reference architecture consisting of its FAS storage platform with Cisco Systems Inc.’s networking gear and Unified Computing System (UCS) and VMware Inc.’s vSphere hypervisor technology. EMC’s partnership with Cisco and VMware extends to its go-to-market strategy. EMC, Cisco and VMware formed the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) Company, which sells Vblock products based on various EMC storage systems and the same Cisco and VMware pieces included in FlexPods.

VCE is a joint effort between Cisco and EMC, with investments from EMC-owned VMware and Intel. “Where [Vblock and FlexPod] fit is those environments that are looking for easy–to-acquire, easy-to-install and easy-to-deploy solutions,” said Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at the Server and StorageIO Group. “They’re already preintegrated, using a turnkey approach.”

A complete FlexPod system is available from from NetApp’s VARs. For instance, Avnet Inc. offers assembly, testing, technical expertise and support for FlexPod designs through its Avnet Technology Solutions operating group.

Avnet is also a part of the VCE Partner Program.

The choice between Vblock and FlexPod goes beyond whether you want NetApp or EMC storage in your environment. NetApp’s FlexPod offers physical resource flexibility and the ability to use legacy equipment to build your own shared infrastructure, but you have to do it. VCE will sell you a ready-to-install Vblock, but you have only five units to choose from. It’s more about your administrators’ expertise and time, and your legacy equipment.

While both bundled systems are designed for easy implementation, and they feature similar networking resources, there are differences that will determine which system would best fit your environment.

Vblock components

Vblocks utilize Cisco Nexus 1000V-series switches and Cisco 6120 or 6140 fabric interconnects for computing, Cisco Nexus 5000- or 7000-series networking switches, and Cisco MDS 9000 SAN switches.

The Vblock 0, for smaller production environments in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), utilizes EMC’s Celerra NS-120 storage system with network-attached storage (NAS), iSCSI and Fibre Channel (FC) interconnects. The Vblock 0 scales from 75 to 105 drive slots.

The Vblock 1 and 1U systems are designed for shared services in medium- to high-workload virtual machine environments, including e-mail, file and print services, virtual desktops, and collaboration. EMC’s Clariion CX4-480 is included within the Vblock 1, and the Celerra NS-480 and NS-960 come with the Vblock 1U.

The Vblock 300 series uses EMC’s VNX unified storage platform. Bundles are available with the VNX 7500, 5700, 5500 and 5300 models.

VCE’s large-enterprise product is the Vblock 700MX, with EMC’s Symmetrix VMAX, which can scale up to 2 PB of storage capacity. The 700MX is designed for large numbers of VMs and users and high-performance, business-critical applications.

FlexPod components

Like the Vblock, NetApp’s FlexPod uses the Cisco 1000Vx-series computing switches, 6120 fabric interconnects and Cisco 5000-series switches. The difference between the two platforms is in the storage.  

NetApp offers any of its FAS-series storage lines within the FlexPod framework. Chris Cummings, NetApp’s vice president of product and solutions marketing, said that because NetApp uses the same Data Ontap operating system for all of its storage models, the FlexPod architecture works with any FAS model.

NetApp does recommend certain FAS models with certain FlexPod architectures, though. For example, the FlexPod for VMware Technical Specification lists the FAS 3210A with a maximum of 240 disk drives and 480 TB of raw capacity as the storage system specification.

Because EMC owns a controlling interest in VMware and VMware is a VCE investor, don’t expect to see VCE add any competing hypervisors to its products. You can buy a Vblock with a mixture of the preconfigured vSphere hypervisor and bare metal, on which you can install your own hypervisor. But a third-party hypervisor is not supported by VCE.

NetApp, meanwhile, is opening the door for at least Microsoft’s Hyper-V hypervisor.  NetApp and Cisco support a prevalidated configuration for Hyper-V, which is not officially a FlexPod product but is built with the same storage and networking components.

“NetApp is taking a more neutral approach,” Schulz explained. “They’re not cheering for one [hypervisor] over the other.”

Architectures

Both NetApp and VCE tout their bundled solutions as easier ways to implement a consolidated infrastructure for multi-tenant virtualized and cloud storage environments.

According to Gene Ruth, a research director for Gartner Inc., FlexPods are used by administrators who want a prescribed solution but need more flexibility than a prepackaged product. Ruth said he believes Vblocks are being used by organizations that want a system that is easier to implement and manage.

Don Norbeck, VCE’s senior director of Vblock strategy, said his company’s product has two major advantages over a reference architecture. First, as mentioned above, VCE sells Vblocks with all of the Cisco, EMC and VMware components preconfigured and pretested.

Norbeck said VCE also wanted to avoid a common problem of performance decline that hits after products change over time due to patches and upgrades. “We know that over a 12-week period, over 50 percent of the software inside that architecture could change,” he said. So VCE identifies new patches, updates and upgrades from components manufacturers and tests them on all Vblock products. Every six months it releasess Vblock “known good save points,” which Norbeck characterizes as “recipe cards with help.” They identify release changes, what they do and how administrators should apply them to get predictable results.

“You have the physical, logical and virtual [components] configured in a way to minimize cost, maximize performance and enable flexibility that’s appropriate for particular workloads,” Norbeck said.

Management

NetApp uses its inherent management capabilities--and those of its partners--in the FlexPod architecture. Administrators can use NetApp’s On Command management suite for storage, Cisco’s UCS Manager for networking and computing, and VMware’s vCenter for the vSphere hypervisor. NetApp also offers APIs to work with broader heterogeneous data center management software such as BMC Software Inc.’s Atrium.

VCE also offers Cisco and VMware management tools and uses EMC’s Ionix Unified Infrastructure Manager (UIM), which is a consolidated dashboard for managing entire Vblocks. “UIM gives a Vblock its systems approach,” Norbeck said. He explained that EMC’s UIM can coalesce the Vblock’s physical resources and leverage them for particular objectives, such as guaranteeing performance or availability for critical applications.

“Which is better?” Gartner’s Ruth said. “We could debate that all day long.”

Support

Since VCE is a company selling a product, it has a dedicated support department. According to the VCE website, a support ticket is initiated by filling out a Web form, which will trigger a call back from a VCE specialist. There’s also a phone number listed for technical support.

NetApp, Cisco and VMware have developed a round-the-clock cooperative support model that includes a Unified Support Lab to reproduce and diagnose customer issues and resolve customer cases.

Ruth said the bundled solutions haven’t had enough implementations to get an idea of how each company’s support philosophies will work. “What we haven’t seen yet is enough traction in the marketplace to find out what’s really happening,” he said.

Are these bundles the future of storage?

The jury is still out on whether these converged infrastructure bundles will live up to early hype. Partnering with the hypervisor and networking leaders can be a dual-edged sword for EMC and NetApp. They should be able to take advantage of new technologies delivered by VMware and Cisco quickly, but the storage vendors are not in full control of all the pieces of the FlexPod and Vblock products.

Coordination among the VCE partners has not always been smooth.  There have been rumblings that Cisco is unhappy with the VCE business arrangements, and such talk typically hinders sales. And although EMC is VMware’s parent, VMware must keep good relationships with other storage vendors.

“The boundaries of that partnership are out there; everybody knows about it,” said Rob Zelinka, an IT executive for a California law firm, of the EMC-Cisco-VMware troika. “I question how much longer the relationship between EMC, Cisco and VMware will survive. And even though VMware is mostly owned by EMC, if VMware cuts its relationship with other vendors, it will close itself off from other business opportunities.”

Zelinka also questioned how innovative the three-headed stacks can be. “Innovation requires smart people doing things faster,” he said. “Nimble companies don’t have the boundaries that VMware, Cisco, EMC and NetApp would have.”

EMC and NetApp also face mounting competition from system vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co. and Dell Inc. HP VirtualSystem and Dell vStart bundles are also aimed at highly virtualized environments, and HP and Dell use more of their own IP than EMC and NetApp have in the Vblock and FlexPod.

The bundles offered by EMC and NetApp do make sense for large customers already using those vendors’ storage along with Cisco and VMware technology. Link Alander, associate vice chancellor of technology services at the Lone Star College System in Texas, chuckled when he first heard about Vblocks because one of the configurations resembled a setup he was already using to run virtual machines.

“I read the article when they first announced the Vblock concept, and my first comment was, ‘They stole my idea,’” Alander said. “Then we pushed and prodded and got a demo sent to us, and we’ve been using it for virtual desktop pilots.”

Alander said his one complaint is that he would like to see smaller Vblock configurations than those on the market.

“It’s an impressive piece of equipment,” he said. “One challenge I have is scalability. We’re in 19 locations, and some locations only need to support 200 systems at most. We don’t want to put [Vblock] in a central core. I want to run [virtual] desktops from our campus server groups, not from our central core. It’s great for major scale but not for downsizing to a smaller location.”

Senior News Director Dave Raffo contributed to this story.

This was first published in July 2011

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