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Executive interview: Sudheesh Nair, president, Nutanix

Nutanix is top of the HCI Magic Quadrant, a new category for Gartner this year. We speak to the company's president about how the business is evolving

Gartner describes hyper-converged infrastructure as scale-out software integrated infrastructure that applies a modular approach to compute, network and storage resources.

In effect, a business buys a hyper-converged appliance, which will support a given size of workload in terms of compute, storage and networking capacity. As and when more resources are needed, the customer buys another appliance – management software on the hyper-converged appliance is able to scale elastically to support the IT requirements of the workload.

Nutanix is regarded as leader in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant of hyper-converged infrastructure, ahead of Dell-EMC, VMware and HPE, all of which are in the top “leaders” quadrant.

Nutanix appears to be moving away from pure hyper-converged to a company that supports businesses on their journey to becoming cloud-enabled.

In an interview with Computer Weekly, Nutanix president Sudheesh Nair discusses how the company is shifting to the cloud. “It’s more than rebranding,” he says. “Hyper-converged was a necessary first step to a journey to free corporate IT from the darkest corners of the datacentre, where IT looked after the compute, storage and network. These don’t mean much to the business.”

According to Nair, in the past, storage prevented infrastructure from becoming more elastic because data often resided in different silos. Tackling this limitation was the first product focus for Nutanix.

Three years ago, Nutanix evolved to fit into a virtualised world, offering its own hypervisor, which became the second evolution in product development, said Nair.

“Now is the right time to focus on what the business cares about, which applications, self-service, automation, an API-first architecture and security,” he said. This is what Nutanix sees as its enterprise cloud operating system.

Being top of the Magic Quadrant will probably get Nutanix on the shortlist for new tenders, but its biggest challenge ahead is the fact that all the major IT providers have a hybrid cloud strategy.

Competing with Microsoft

Microsoft’s recent financial results show it is pushing a distributed computing vision, with a single API from endpoint devices, Azure stack on-premise to the public Azure cloud.

In a transcript of the earnings call posted on the Seeking Alpha financial blogging site, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said: “There are new workloads being born that require both the cloud and the edge – IoT [internet of things] being a great example of that. And especially when you take that in combination with AI [artificial intelligence], again you train on the cloud and you score on the edge. That’s a real competitive advantage.”

But for Nair, the reality shows there is a good reason why Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the clear leader in new-age applications. “Architecture and design matter, but Microsoft has to build on what it already has,” he says. According to Nair, this limits the flexibility of Azure, compared with Amazon’s approach, where there is no legacy.

Similarly, in the hypervisor market, Nair said: “There is a reason VMware is ahead of Microsoft Hyper-V.”

Battle for hybrid cloud

Although Nadella came in and changed the profile of Microsoft, making it more open, Nair believes the battle for hybrid cloud is far from over. “I think we are in the early stages of hybrid cloud,” he says.

“Incumbency is a powerful force, but if it was the only factor, Microsoft would have owned mobile operating systems. There is a reason why iOS and Android have taken over.”

He adds: “The technology is changing so fast that the size of legacy system becomes a burden because it is harder to change. If you have millions of customers, it is difficult to change your API, because you have to maintain backwards compatibility.”

Nair is betting that more data will be created outside the datacentre than inside, such as autonomous cars or smart grids, which will generate hundreds of terabytes of data. It is simply not practical to move all this data into a datacentre for processing.

“The cloud has to be distributed,” says Nair. “AWS, Azure Stack and Google can do this, but it is a forced fit. You cannot do this just for new applications; old-school IT should also see the benefits of cloud.”

Turning to Azure, he says: “Underneath it all, the AWS architecture has a cleaner design. Amazon is like an elephant that can run like a cheetah – but its architecture is built to run everything once it is in the datacentre. They are smart enough to push to the edge and will use VMware as a partner to get into the enterprise. But do they truly believe they can have their architecture running in their customers’ premises?”

For Nair, the answer is “no, they can’t”. It is the segment that Microsoft is going after with Azure Stack, but Nair is confident Nutanix has the agility to offer a viable alternative.

Myth of cloud-bursting

Buying infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) for applications where the workload cannot be predicted makes sense, and it also makes sense to run certain workloads on-premise, says Nair. “Most businesses that are not strapped for cash prefer to buy assets and depreciate them over a number of years, because it looks significantly better on the books,” he adds.

Nair says the clear benefit of a hybrid approach to cloud is that it is possible to gain from the lower costs of running a predictable workload in an on-premise environment, but then having the ability to burst to the cloud during peak business periods. This is the goal many IT departments would like to achieve, but it is far harder to do, he says.

Data protection, data sovereignty and synchronising data across on-premise and cloud IT, among other matters, make cloud-bursting a technically complex procedure, and there is also the complexity of consuming proprietary platform services. “When you start using Lambda on AWS, you are looked into Amazon,” says Nair. “It is not a perfect marketplace where you can hedge against one cloud provider and another to find the best possible deal.”

Finally, says Nair, there is no architectural template that fits everyone. CIOs and their IT architecture teams will need to assess what exactly a hybrid cloud strategy means in their business. This is an untapped market and Nair hopes Nutanix can tick enough of the right boxes to carve a niche in hybrid cloud.

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