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EMC adds high-density Clariion configurations, 'high end' and 'midrange' distinctions blur

EMC launched a news midrange Clariion model today, the High Density Clariion CX-4.

The new storage frame can hold up to 390 disks in three rack units and supports 2 TB 7200 RPM and 5400 RPM SATA drives, or a combination of SATA drives and up to 60 solid-state drives (SSD).

The new Clariions are 2U higher and five inches deeper than the standard Clariions, and let customers build larger capacity configurations in a smaller footprint. For instance, a standard Clariion CX 4-960 with support for 1 TB SATA drives will take up six racks to store 945 usable TBs. The High Density units can store the same amount in three racks.

The Clariion announcement itself wasn’t anything all that earth-shattering, but it led to an interesting discussion with Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Mark Peters that I think bears summarizing here.

Thoughts on “high end” vs. “midrange”

I spoke Monday with a Pillar Data Systems reseller about Pillar’s new Axiom 600 controller. He said Pillar had recently come up against Symmetrix V-Max in a deal. Pillar lost, but the reseller claimed that was due to EMC’s brand recognition rather than a technical disadvantage for Pillar in this environment.

At first, the comparison between EMC’s high-end disk array and Pillar’s Axiom, which has lived squarely in the midrange, might seem a jarring one. While a fully configured Axiom 600 can scale up to over a petabyte and a half, a single V-Max engine pair can address that much capacity, and scale up from there. V-Max also offers more bandwidth, at 8 Gbps FC while Axiom uses 4 Gbps FC, and mainframe connections through FICON, which most midrange arrays, including Pillar, don’t offer.

But this kind of comparison isn’t nearly as much of a stretch as it might’ve been even four or five years ago, when “midrange” or “low-end” meant “stripped of certain features and functionality.” “It used to be when you wanted a feature that was really complex or clever, you would get a high-end system,” said ESG’s Peters.

These days, the features advertised for Axiom and V-Max have quite a bit of overlap, from thin provisioning to quality of service to tiered storage data migration and solid-state drive support. Since EMC came out with the V-Max Symmetrix model, a successor to the monolithic DMX series, the two have also, had a broadly similar architecture, a matrix made up of separately scalable performance (“engines” for EMC, “slammers” for Pillar) and capacity nodes (“capacity” for EMC, “bricks” for Pillar).

It also used to be that a high end disk array could be identified by the amount of cache available to boost performance, as well as intelligent algorithms to manage placement of data on that disk. With the advent of Flash for enterprise consumption, vendors like Pillar are able to offer the kind of cache capacities that used to be available only in the highest-end arrays — 192 GB with the Series 2 Axiom 600 controller.

The overlap between midrange and high end is also increasing within EMC’s own product line — the Clariion, which it calls a midrange array, can now achieve capacities well into the Symmetrix range, especially with the high-density model. Both products also offer Flash support, QoS, thin provisioning, drive spin down, etc.

Of course this doesn’t mean that people will begin speaking of the two categories interchangeably, at least not tomorrow or in the near future. But Peters noted that users may emphasize new types of purchasing criteria now that the old lines of sheer capacity and horsepower are beginning to blur.  This is where, as the Pillar reseller mentioned, brand recognition and vendor cachet will become more important than ever. “People are buying more than a product,” Peters said. “They’re buying interoperability, a sheer number of service engineers, money going into a research lab, and global support.”

The size of the environment will also continue to play a role, but this will find more of an emphasis on risk management depending on the size and profile level of the business involved. “Different size companies still have different bases on which they make purchasing decisions, and one of those is risk.”

It’s also important to recognize that different companies will use the same technical term to describe features that might still be different under the covers. “All the vendors will now say they have thin provisioning and remote replication,” Peters said. “But you always have to be careful in this game to look out for semantic similarities that may not mean the features are exactly the same.”

So the story as told by the Pillar reseller will probably continue to be retold in various forms.

As an example, Peters turned to a car analogy. “Hyundai and Mercedes might both say they have four-wheel drive,” he said. “And it may be that Hyundai’s really is just as good as the Mercedes, but I don’t necessarily trust them. That’s similar to a storage buyer [today].”

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