Enterprise Computing Lab Boosts Hybrid and Multicloud Data Center Innovation

Intel and Nutanix optimize hardware and software, so hyperconverged infrastructure advancements come to market faster.

By Erin Poulson and Joanie Wexler

By Erin Poulson and Joanie Wexler April 22, 2021

A joint innovation lab by Intel Corporation and Nutanix is hard at work, exploring and tightly integrating the latest advances in computer memory, processing, storage and networking with software that manages hybrid and multicloud IT operations. Leaders from each company say the goal is to help IT teams bring hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) and other enterprise cloud innovations into their data centers easier and faster.

HCI turns data centers into a private cloud with data resources that could ultimately spill onto public cloud infrastructure, creating a hybrid cloud environment. The 2020 Enterprise Cloud Index showed that 86% of the 3,400 global IT leaders surveyed said hybrid cloud is their ideal IT operatinig model.

In interviews with The Forecast, Phil Harris, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Data Center Solutions Group, and Rob Mills, director of engineering at Nutanix, explained how the joint lab is already making progress in short order.


Busting Myths About Hyperconverged Infrastructure

The Nutanix Acropolis Operating System’s (AOS) ability to support Intel Optane Solid State Drives (SSDs) is one of the first fruits of the lab that’s helping Nutanix customers optimize the performance of their most demanding workloads, according to Mills. In particular, Nutanix Blockstore, which is a new AOS file system and block management layer, works together with innovative, open-source NVMe drive access code from Intel to deliver a new AOS storage data path, slashing CPU utilization and I/O latency by eliminating data copies and context switches.

The lab currently estimates up to 77% better mixed read/write performance of NVMe and Intel Optane drives over previous AOS versions with older SATA SSDs, with more improvements to come.

Evolving Data Center Requirements

Nutanix pioneered HCI a decade ago to integrate and virtualize off-the-shelf compute, storage and networking hardware in workload-optimized configurations, explained Mills. The goal was to simplify data center operations while also delivering greater agility and lowering costs, in part by eliminating the need for expensive, specialized storage arrays. Since then, customer requirements have continued to evolve.

“Enterprise applications and systems now need more memory, faster processors, more parallel processing, and new hardware accelerations,” Mills said. 

“New workloads have more requirements in the area of security and data services, such as compression and encryption. Machine learning and AI workloads require more instructions to speed up algorithms and calculations. Intel has all of those technologies in its portfolio.”

The Innovation Lab is optimizing Nutanix software for a variety of Intel technologies, including:

  • Intel® Xeon® Scalable Processors
  • Intel Optane SSD
  • Intel Persistent Memory (PMem)
  • Intel NVMe drives
  • Intel Storage Performance Development Kit (SPDK)
  • Intel E810 series Ethernet controllers and adapters

The lab aims to reduce latency in I/O paths and boost performance, and improving serviceability and expandability of Intel-based Nutanix-powered platforms designed for private and hybrid cloud environments.

Projects Designed for Performance and More

Mills said the Intel-Nutanix partnership is all about exploring the potential to unlock the full value of Intel’s technologies by optimizing the Nutanix software stack.


HCI Eases the Transition to Hybrid Cloud

Take Intel Optane SSD technology, for instance. It’s an entirely new class of direct-attached storage device memory that delivers ultra-high speed and density for emerging applications that demand greater performance. Intel touts one Optane SSD model, the P5800X, as “the world’s fastest data center SSD.”

As Mills explained, someone could replace standard NVMe SSDs with Optane SSDs in their server, and it would work just fine. But without AOS software optimizations, many workloads won't benefit from the unique performance characteristics that make Optane SSDs revolutionary, such as faster database accesses.

In the Innovation Lab, however, Mills and his team work closely with Intel and Nutanix engineers and architects to tweak Nutanix AOS and tune its algorithms to ensure that users could leverage the performance benefits of Optane SSD technology for a broad set of workloads. 

This optimization, Mills said, has been the lab’s “biggest success so far.”

Application Use Cases

Mills said there are two primary workload focus areas for Nutanix HCI infrastructure: accelerating existing applications and workloads, such as SQL databases and VDI, and accommodating new classes of applications like big data analytics and AI/ML workloads.”

“The app developer shouldn't have to make any changes,” he explained. “Performance that is ‘x’ today might see 30% to 40% improvement, depending on the application,” thanks to the joint Intel-Nutanix optimization.


Hyperconvergence 2.0: Next Generation HCI Powers Shift to Hybrid Cloud Infrastructure

The teams are exploring how to leverage Optane SSD capabilities in a high-performance storage tier in the Nutanix stack. Another project deals with figuring out how Intel’s Optane PMem can integrate into the Nutanix software stack. The benefits of PMem could include larger virtual disk capacities, improved user application performance, faster node recovery time, more virtual machines per cluster node, and support for emerging applications that can use PMem directly, such as SAP HANA.

Mills is quick to mention that the point of the Lab is innovation, which doesn’t necessarily lead to productization. 

“Will it result in significant performance advancements in our product in the future? I believe so. But we will base our productization plans on what we find, and we learn new things every week.”

A Natural Partnership

Harris said that part of the Intel-Nutanix synergy is figuring out what customers truly need. 

“Innovation is not merely about getting together the widgets like Intel hardware and Nutanix software and making them work seamlessly together,” he said. “It’s about making sure we focus on the right widgets to yield a solution that ensures we create – and even augment – new customer value  for positive outcomes.”

For Mills, working directly with Intel can smooth some of the bumps that occur naturally in any project. 

“They bring experts and architects to the table whenever they’re needed…that’s a tremendous value, especially when you're doing something pretty cutting-edge related to new technologies,” Mills said. 

“Without the close collaboration of the company that developed the technology, you don't know if you can address any gaps.”

Value Across Industries

The Intel-Nutanix Innovation Lab aims to add value across many industries, according to Intel’s Harris.

“The work we do would enable any OEM at the competitive technology level to take the same optimizations and drive them into their own systems,” Harris said. 

“Having that optimization in the Nutanix stack, for example, is not exclusive. We don’t put a walled garden around any of the work we do in the Innovation Lab.” 

Harris said that, in addition to making the technologies non-exclusive, the lab would release specific platform designs, much like an off-the-shelf turnkey system, so OEMs don’t have to invest their own time and money in R&D.


How HCI Helps Business Application Deployment

Mills said the Innovation Lab is just getting started. Bringing together expertise from both companies could lead to significant advancements, but they need to focus on real customer needs. 

“We’re starting to talk about where the Lab and Intel technologies can contribute to the Nutanix hybrid cloud strategy," Mills said. 

For example, he said traditional data center workloads on AOS today need to run well in popular public clouds. “And cloud-native apps should be well supported on Nutanix on-premise infrastructure, all easily managed via a common Nutatnix control plane.”

Learn more about Intel® Optane™ technology and Nutanix hybrid and multicloud technologies.

Erin Poulson is a contributing writer who specializes in IT and business topics.

Joanie Wexler is a contributing writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience covering the business implications of IT and computer networking technologies.

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