My Thoughts On the Rise of KVM in Hyperconverged Infrastructure Solutions
This week at the company’s inaugural .NEXT conference, Nutanix extended its support for the KVM hypervisor with the introduction of their custom build of the open source hypervisor. This custom hypervisor is one part of a three-pronged product that the company has named Acropolis. Acropolis as a whole looks like a compelling offering, but I’m here to focus on just the hypervisor part of the equation.
Strategically, there are a number of hyperconverged infrastructure vendors that support KVM. In general, KVM support falls into one of two categories:
- KVM is the heart of the system. In these systems, KVM is the system. These solutions include products from companies like Scale Computing, Stratoscale, and, now, Nutanix with Acropolis. In these systems, the KVM hypervisor has been intentionally selected and there are no other hypervisor options. The vendor has taken steps to provide management services and support for the system as a whole, including the hypervisor.
- KVM is supported as an alternative to vSphere. Although a recent study performed by ActualTech Media indicated that multiple hypervisor support is not one of the primary drivers of hyperconverged infrastructure purchases, I see that as potentially a short-term situation. Companies that are providing support for KVM as an alternative hypervisor include SimpliVity and Maxta.
The Hypervisor Dilemma
VMware is pretty ubiquitous today. It serves a great purpose and is the current leader in the market for some very good reasons. First, VMware has had a great lead in innovation in the space. Second, the support ecosystem around vSphere is incredible, both from outside the company and from within. In fact, in recent years, as the hypervisor has become more commoditized, VMware itself has placed more emphasis on their own products that supplement vSphere, even when doing so places them in more direct competition with their partners.
For most mainstream organizations using vSphere, they could get by with Hyper-V or even KVM if they really needed to. Feature for feature, although there are some advanced features in vSphere, Hyper-V or KVM can do just fine. VMware knows that they hypervisor alone is becoming replaceable. Hence the all-hands focus on ancillary services, such as VSAN, NSX, the management tools, and even backup services.
The Pricing and Complexity Game
Buying into and maintaining the VMware ecosystem is relatively expensive and the company’s constant product name changes and even some licensing changes they’ve made in the past confuse end users. But it’s really the price tag that’s of concern to many. As IT departments are forced to continue cutting costs or even just maintain the same costs year over year, something has to give. Further, as the data center has undergone sprawl over the years, there has been an explosion in complexity and new costs. Complexity alone increases costs, too.
VMware and Hyper-V, while excellent products, miss the mark in that they are always “add ons” in the data center. Individual vendors don’t get to directly manage that layer.
KVM doesn’t have much direct penetration as a standalone hypervisor, but that’s on the verge of changing. For example, every customer that’s deployed a Scale Computing solution has also deployed KVM. The same goes for Stratoscale and NIMBOXX. Some Nutanix, SimpliVity, and Maxta customers have also deployed KVM, but those customers are in the relative minority.
As a simple standalone hypervisor, I can see why there’s not much interest in KVM. Although the idea of open source is great, most companies want mission-critical systems running on something fully supported, so “raw” KVM enterprise deployments are relatively rare.
However, when bundled into a complete solution and when the providing vendor has customized the tool to provide a more complete experience, it can be a compelling option. Those that have embraced KVM as a core part of their offering are also building the support infrastructure around that tool, effectively eliminating – or at least reducing in severity – the primary concern that enterprises have around the product. Further, as vendors embrace and extend KVM, we’re seeing more and more core services make their way into complete solutions that might be able to supplant vSphere and its ecosystem. For example, with Acropolis, Nutanix includes what the company calls a Distributed Storage Fabric and an App Mobility Fabric. App Mobility Fabric in particular provides VM placement services, high availability, and other core services that have been housed in the realm of vCenter in VMware shops. Both SimpliVity and Maxta support OpenStack for KVM-managed solutions. Although neither SimpliVity nor Maxta currently have modified version of KVM for their hyperconverged infrastructure products, OpenStack support can help those wishing to move away from vSphere do so. Finally, there’s Stratoscale and Scale Computing, both of whom have very deep hooks into KVM and have developed their entire value proposition around KVM.
Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but I believe that these activities are a canary in the coal mine for VMware. As I mentioned earlier, I fully believe VMware knows this and this is one reason that the company has introduced VSAN, which happens to work only with vSphere. It’s definitely a lock-in opportunity.
Right now, Scale Computing is doing well in SMB deployments for their KVM-centric hyperconverged solution. I personally feel that the midmarket and enterprise markets are ripe for appropriately supported KVM solutions. As KVM-centric vendors continue to improve the ancillary offerings around their products, there could be a groundswell of support.
The Role of Containers
At the same time that VMware is under attack from companies like Nutanix, container technology is also making waves. Containers basically provide operating system level abstraction that has the potential to reduce the overall application footprint. I’m not going to go into too much detail about containers except to say that there are hyperconverged infrastructure vendors also supporting this technology. VMware is jumping into this space as well, but unlike virtualization, VMware is not leading this charge.
It will take a while, but as hyperconverged infrastructure vendors continue to develop their customized KVM hypervisors, I see a growing desire for companies to save money by eliminating what can often be expensive VMware licensing costs. There is a lot of innovation taking place by a lot of companies in this space right now and we’re only at the beginning of this trend.
Edit: 6/17/2015: Make correction around NSX’s support for alternative hypervisors. The original article assumed that NSX was supported by vSphere only.