Dell Tech World: Did We Miss the Storage News??

Well, another Dell Tech World has come and gone. We had hoped to see six key items from Dell this year, but there was really one key question on our minds: Would Dell show some real innovation in storage? Or has the once-storage-great EMC (which we knew and respected) been subsumed into a company mostly focused on PCs, servers, HCI, and catching the cloud? While we must admit that a few of the Dell laptops Dell Tech World: Did We Miss the Storage News??and monitors we saw made us genuinely question our MacBook devotion, we saw little evidence that Dell is delivering storage innovation that forward-thinking companies can bet on.

Let’s take an inventory of the “big” Dell headline news in storage:

  • A processor bump to Unity XT, upgrading it to Intel Skylake processors from 2017 and making it “NVMe-Ready.” Not even a mention of the new MidRange.Next offering. Oh, and XT’s not coming until July.
  • Zero new PowerMax features, other than a reiterated commitment that PowerMax will ship SCM by the end of 2019. It’s a commitment that was similarly made a year ago at Dell World 2018. No updates on whether NVMe-oF is still coming this year (another commitment not yet delivered). And no talk at all on QLC.
  • Bigger Isilon. Also due for a promised next-gen refresh, there was no news on Unstructured.Next. Instead, it’s just an increase in scale, some new hybrid nodes, and enhanced cloud integration.
  • New Dell Cloud Storage Services, which host PowerMax, Unity, and Isilon storage arrays in co-located service-provider data centers with DirectConnect capabilities to the public cloud. While this is an expected move to compete with NetApp’s Cloud Volumes, it is far short of Dell’s storage software portfolio running natively inside the public cloud.
  • PowerProtect, a new data-protection offering that looks to be aimed at staving-off mid-market competition from Rubrik and Cohesity.
  • Continued feature execution on CloudIQ, EMC’s answer to Pure1® and Nimble InfoSight. In our view, everything here is simply catching up to what Pure (and to a lesser extent, the industry) has been doing for years. Although CloudIQ provides some centralized visibility, it’s still a completely different management experience across the major Dell product lines.
  • Zero keynote news on XtremIO, Dell Compellent, Data Domain, or ECS.

So if you add it up, you have processor/scale/performance upgrades in Unity and Isilon, a re-iteration that last year’s PowerMax roadmap is still coming, a colo-hosted service, some better reporting in CloudIQ, and a brand new mid-market data-protection appliance and software. Does this add up to a year’s worth of innovation? We’ll let you be the final judge.

What About an Update on MidRange.Next?

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the lack of information on the coming (this year!) MidRange.Next and Unstructured.Next offerings. Dell Vice Chairman Jeff Clarke has been very vocal with the press and investors that a brand new mid-range platform was key to his storage turnaround plan. And that they were on track to deliver it in 2019. So why push general availability of a new Unity XT in July 2019 if the replacement offer is coming later this same year? We’d advise customers to skip this eXceedingly Temporary release of Unity and wait for the go-forward midrange product. If you do find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to buy or renew Unity, Compellent, or XtremIO this year, get these assurances from Dell in writing before you write a check.

Little to Say about PowerMax

At Pure we most typically compete head-to-head with PowerMax, so we were a bit disappointed that this year’s keynote had just a passing mention, other than to reiterate last year’s disclosure about SCM tiering/caching coming to PowerMax. And to make it clear that Dell is using dual-ported SCM drives as opposed to HPE’s in-controller approach. Oddly, there was no update on NVMe-oF ship dates, another PowerMax roadmap item promised for this year.

At Pure, we’ve already shipped NVMe-oF over RDMA Ethernet as part of our DirectFlash™ Fabric, an architecture we believe is key to replacing legacy DAS infrastructure and helping elevate Ethernet as the de facto architecture for building clouds. While we’re not ready to talk about SCM quite yet, rest assured that we have big plans for it in FlashArray… In fact, we might even beat PowerMax to market with it.

Breaking Down Unity XT

Dell devoted the most storage keynote time to Unity XT, which is a bit odd given that it seems like a modest refresh. Let’s get into a few details on what will perhaps be the last Unity upgrade before MidRange.Next comes later this year:

“Completely refreshed” with Skylake processors to be two times faster. This is a hard claim to validate since Dell actually removed the performance specifications between last year’s and this year’s spec sheets. But routine processor updates to improve performance are table stakes in storage. It is a bit odd to see Dell choose the two-year-old Skylake (which Pure first shipped last year) in this update.

“NVMe-Ready.” It’s 2019 and in our view, Dell should be shipping systems that are fully equipped with NVMe, not preparing for it in the future. Pure first issued our NVMe-Ready Guarantee in 2016 when we promised customers that their FlashArray//M systems would be fully upgradable to both NVMe flash and NVMe-oF, which we delivered on with the launch of FlashArray//X. When you dig into the details, it turns out that only 8 of Unity’s 25 drive slots will be capable of NVMe in the future. (Maybe “8/25ths NVMe-Ready” didn’t quite have the same marketing zing to it.) Prospective customers should ask Dell for the same NVMe Guarantee that Pure issued years ago before buying Unity, including a path for trading-in their SAS flash for NVMe when it eventually ships.

“Up to 5:1 Data Reduction.” A good one from the marketing department. “My favorite football team could win up to 16 games this season.” Dell improved the data-reduction capabilities to make up-to-5:1 data reduction possible in Unity. (But it’s only willing to guarantee 3-to-1.) We say “possible” because that’s the methodology Dell uses to make this claim: “Based on a Dell EMC Unity 2019 review of installed base efficiency rates indicating specific customers with 5:1 DRR.” So, apparently, some customers have achieved 5:1 data reduction rates, which EMC has historically defined to include thin provisioning and snapshots. At Pure, we’ve achieved an average 5:1 data reduction for more than five years, and that only counts savings from deduplication and compression. It jumps to >10:1 when you include thin provisioning.

“Active-Active.” We see this as another Dell Marketing sleight-of-hand. Dell markets active-active as delivering better performance, in fact stating in its launch post that “Some midrange platforms, especially those that are active-passive architectures, struggle with processing data, running data reduction, and data services like replication at the same time without impacting application performance.” The implication is that an active-active system with two active controllers provides better performance and reliability, right? In reality, any system should be sized such that it can handle the full load in the event of a single controller failure. In a two-controller system, everything must be capable of running on just one controller.

If you want reliable operations through failures and maintenance, it’s wise to load each controller only to 50%. But Unity puts the burden of assigning volumes to controllers on the user, so they must manage this balancing act. Check out Table 2 on Page 9 of the January 2019 Unity Best Practices Doc, which states that at processor utilization >50%, it is recommended to “enable data reduction on only a few [storage objects] at a time” and “enable snapshots or replication on only a few storage objects at a time.” Active-active indeed! It seems more like half-active/half-active to us. Pure controllers take a hybrid approach, where front-end IO handling is active-active, but storage processing is active-passive. A user never inadvertently overloads an array and a full standby controller is designed to be ready to take over in the event of failure, maintenance, or upgrades. Our design prioritizes reliability (and simplicity!) over all else.

Customer-upgradable, hot-swappable components. Dell made a big deal about how all the Unity XT components are hot-swappable and upgradable. That’s a naturally great design. And one that Pure came out with in a single chassis when we first launched FlashArray//M years ago. But hot-swap is now table stakes. Pure delivers Evergreen™ upgradability, which gives you the ability to seamlessly upgrade with data-in-place between every

  • FlashArray model (that’s right, start with //X10 and move seamlessly to //X20, //X50, //X70, or //X90), and to upgrade between generations. FlashArray//M20 → FlashArray//X70? No problem. No downtime. Without moving data.
  • SAS-connected flash → NVMe DirectFlash Modules? No problem. No downtime.

In both cases, you get trade-in credit for the controllers or flash that you’re replacing. Ask Dell the tough questions about how they stack up, especially before you buy an array with an eXtremely Temporary lifespan.

Built for multicloud. Dell has introduced a few options for connecting Unity to the cloud, either by connecting with EMC Cloud Storage Services (i.e. a Unity running in a cloud-connected colocation data center) or by replicating to a software-defined Unity running in VMware Cloud on AWS. So few details are available on these services that we won’t spend time debating them yet, other than to say that our approach at Pure hasn’t been simply to put our arrays in co-los or run our storage software in a VM in the cloud. We’ve done the hard work of natively porting our Purity Operating Environment to run in AWS as the basis for PureCloud Block Store. Cloud Block Store is in beta now, we’d be happy to have you test-drive it alongside Dell’s offerings to compare.

Our Conclusion: In Times of Change, Plan for the Future—And Get Your Guarantees in Writing!

Amidst all that’s shifting at Dell Storage, we’d encourage you to do your homework. Ask the tough questions. Hold tight for the new products if you can. And, if you do have to buy the current generation (or even renew maintenance), get your guarantees in writing. Or, come talk to us at Pure.

Our premier guarantee and ownership experience at Pure is Evergreen Storage. It’s an architecture, a buying program, and some would say an engineering religion. Evergreen is four years strong, and now available as a true pay-per-use OPEX subscription service as ES2. There’s never been a better time to test-drive Pure, see why the grass is oranger, and why our NPS score is the highest in B2B.