Nutanix's audacious vision soars above appliances

The erstwhile datacentre disruptor is seeking to be the control point for future networks

A few years ago, Nutanix was the disruptive start-up that became the bane of the lives of the old refrigerator-sized storage array, three-tier merchants such as IBM, HPE, NetApp, EMC and HDS. But at its .NEXT conference in Europe earlier this month, the company showed that it has become something much bigger – a fixed point of the datacentre infrastructure landscape with a burgeoning infrastructure management software layer and an increasingly aggressive virtualisation hypervisor play.

The company can’t be called a start-up any longer, even if it was only founded as recently as 2009. With a $4bn-plus post-IPO valuation, 2,800 staff and 7,000 customers it is the undisputed leader in the hyperconvergence market it did so much to create. But its ambitions expand beyond the ability to compress storage, compute and other tasks into server appliances. Way beyond.

As CEO Dheeraj Pandey put it, the company is “only scratching the surface” of making infrastructure invisible and seamless, and Nutanix wants to be the control plane of the new digitised, multi-cloud spanning datacentres and even extend its purview to the edge of networks.

Nutanix has been talking about being at the front and centre of the management landscape for a few years now but some of us saw this more as side bet or a buttress to its core product line. We were wrong it seems: with OEMs including Dell, Lenovo and IBM, the company is becoming more software-centric and appears willing to cede appliance sales to partners except where customers explicitly call for it to participate.



The triple punch of its Prism management suite, Acropolis virtualisation hypervisor and Calm development/provisioning plane is making it a serious challenge. It has moved from (hyperconvergence) ‘stack to PAC’ and if it succeeds it will live up to the recent, bullish Goldman Sachs prognostication that it has a “once in a decade” infrastructure play.

I liken this chrysalis-to-butterfly metamorphosis to VMware extending beyond the virtualisation hypervisor to become the manager of virtual environments and VMware might well be the company with most to lose if Nutanix executes. Alternatively, you might see this as a replay of the lucrative systems management frameworks that IBM, HP, CA, BMC and others built to manage 20th-century datacentres and IT operations. Nutanix president Sudheesh Nair prefers to make the comparison with and how it dramatically refashioned CRM while Pandey makes a comparison with Microsoft in the early 1990s building its Windows ecosystems. You pays your money and you takes your choice (of metaphors and similes), but this is surely one of the most interesting pincer movements in the business technology sector today.


Fast companies

The bullet train that Nutanix is both riding and helping out at the steering wheel is, of course, the one of rapid provisioning of IT resources where code gets written faster and complementary developments such as crowdsourcing, open source and GitHub have exponentially increased the pace of change. Nutanix’s big bet is that this will lead to a need for “invisible infrastructure” where resources will shuttle between in-house datacentres, private clouds and public clouds, and users won’t care a jot so long as they benefit from a slick, value-for-money experience. 

“Our take is cloud will need to be more dispersed that we ever imagined,” Pandey says, and there will be a need for “frictionless control” that accommodates “horizontal dispersal rather than vertically integrated” structures. “We’re trying to build an operating system company in the era of cloud.”

One push touted by Pandey is Xi, Nutanix’s disaster recovery service... or is it? Pandey describes Xi as “a honeypot for developers” where the DR aspect is really “a Trojan horse … a bridge to connect two siloes”. If Xi attracts those devs then Pandey’s dream to create a powerful new modern ecosystem will be significantly advanced.

Risk factors? Of course they exist when you’re competing against some of the biggest technology firms in the world such as VMware, Microsoft and HPE but Nutanix has some nice advantages: an enthusiastic customer base, a strong service ethos and the “audacity”, as Pandey puts it, to aim high… very high indeed.


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