Dell, Microsoft tout joint NAS product

The new NX1950 product is vastly more expensive than its counterparts from HP and NetApp, but it scales higher, supports clusters and has redundant controllers.

LAS VEGAS -- Attendees at Storage Decisions Thursday lunched with representatives from Dell Inc. and Microsoft, who presented the new NX1950 product jointly launched by both companies this week.

The Dell PowerVault NX1950 with Microsoft's Windows Unified Data Storage Server 2003 (WUDSS) consists of a Dell PowerVault server with redundant controller heads; the server, which natively contains 4 terabytes (TB) of drives, can scale up to 15.5 TB using 45 drives by attaching the new MD3000 SAS array. The product also includes Microsoft's iSCSI target, acquired with String Bean Software Inc., offering file- and block-level access in one box.

At first, compared to similar NAS/iSCSI systems announced by Hewlett Packard Co. (HP) and Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp) in recent months, the product's $17,000 "entry-level" price tag ($24,000 for 4 TB of capacity) seems eye-popping. But, Dell and Microsoft representatives presiding over the lunch meeting said there are a few reasons for that -- most of them relating to the new Microsoft software features.

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Included in the price of the product are remote and local replication, as well as the String Bean target, which in other systems must be added separately to the tune of thousands of dollars, according to Bala Kasiviswanathan, group product manager, Windows Server for Microsoft. The product also supports Windows Cluster Servers, including the creation of a quorum disk on the back-end storage and automatic failover, redundant RAID controllers, wizards within the Windows operating system for provisioning shares and setting up iSCSI targets and snapshots, without an added charge for capacity. Windows Unified Data Storage Server also comes with hooks into Microsoft's Data Protection Manager and Dell's IT Assistant management software.

In addition to the management features, all of which, according to the companies, are included in one management console, multiple instances of the product can be managed remotely through WUDSS as well.

This was the product's chief appeal to Ryan Murphy, a storage management contractor with the military, who said he was in the market for a box like this for between 15 and 20 remote sites; he said he had evaluated products like the Dell/EMC AX150 but was intrigued so far with what he had heard about the remote management features in the NX1950.

"The important thing to me is that I be able to see the status and basic configuration of each device I'm managing within the main console screen," Murphy said. "I don't want to have to go out and touch each one to monitor them." Murphy said he had yet to see the device demonstrated; according to Microsoft officials, that kind of centralized management is not available in WUDSS.

"Price wise, though, it fulfills a lot of what we need for a lost less than other products with all the same features," Murphy said.

Another user, Craig Southwick, supervisor, server administration for the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV), said the product was too small for his purposes -- UNLV's Dell shop is running on rebranded Clariion CX300s -- but said smaller Dell and Windows shops might be interested in the product despite the price tag.

"I've noticed that many of their lower end products are pretty expensive compared to what else is out there, but there's more support if you go with Dell -- that's the appeal for customers who have them as a preferred vendor," Southwick said. "You know they have a lot more support resources and internal testing than many other companies producing low-end products."

Users also said that the fact that the product is produced and supported through Microsoft, and runs on a Windows interface, held some appeal as well. "For remote management, I need people to be able to give out storage space without a learning curve," Murphy said. "Most people know the Windows interface."

Murphy also said he appreciated that the product wouldn't require backups using NDMP, a sentiment echoed by others at the lunch. "I love that we can use regular [backup] clients and not NDMP," said a storage manager from a major automotive company, who requested not to be named.

Not every attendee was as impressed. "We have a SAN already," said Bert Sandoval, technology systems administrator, integrated infrastructure services for a school district in the Southwest. Sandoval also said he preferred to use SATA disks rather than the SAS disks included with the NX1950, for cost reasons and because it's a more familiar disk type to his administrators.

David Ping, data center storage team lead, information systems and technology services for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), said he has 30 remote sites to manage, but this product probably wasn't a fit. "Why not just put a NAS gateway in each remote site and let it communicate back to my main data center SAN?" Ping said. "Why manage another whole piece of equipment?"

He added, "It may be a good fit for small companies without a Fibre Channel (FC) infrastructure, but it'll be a tough sell where companies already have an infrastructure in place."

SAS disks: Ready for prime time?

Both Dell and LSI Logic Corp. announced SAS-based arrays this week, but experts said there's a key similarity to both products -- they're not terribly big, they're not standalone SAN arrays, and they use 3.5-inch form factor SAS drives, though much of the hype around SAS has been the better density of the 2.5-inch small form factor SAS disks and as a lower cost replacement for FC in enterprise arrays.

"At this point, there's kind of a glass ceiling on SAS," said independent storage analyst Steve Denegri, who consults with the SCSI Trade Association (STA). "There are some scalability constraints and issues taking SAS beyond small DAS arrays."

EqualLogic Corp. is currently the only midrange SAN vendor to have released a SAS array; the design of the EqualLogic system has made that possible, according to EqualLogic's vice president of marketing John Joseph. The EqualLogic arrays are made out of modular building block chunks and expanded by adding more whole blocks -- meaning the issue of pushing the protocol out over a growing number of expansion trays is moot with the PS Series system. EqualLogic's arrays are not connected via switching fabric since they are iSCSI only, and while the overall storage pool from EqualLogic can combine SATA and SAS, the two disk types are never mixed behind the same controller.

Some experts, according to Denegri, blame the stall in SAS on adapter boards in SAS controllers -- others blame the expansion boards. But there have also been issues, Denegri said, with tunneling between SAS and SATA; so far the two protocols are not speaking to one another as easily as was first predicted. Finally, no major switches on the market as yet have SAS ports available. "It's something the chipmakers are working to develop," Denegri said. "The array vendors are probably going to hold back until SAS has been tested and revised a bit more."

"I don't think we'll see big SAS arrays on the market until next year," Joseph said. As for small form factor, Joseph said he didn't anticipate that it would be making its way to storage "until at least early 2008."

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