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Dell beefs up iSCSI SAN line

Dell's new low-end iSCSI SAN lacks replication, a feature the company says belongs in more advanced products.

Dell Inc. is launching an iSCSI SAN for small businesses that can support up to 18 terabytes (TB) of storage in one enclosure. Priced beginning at $7,000 to $10,000, the device, dubbed the MD3000i, will share the shelf with the AX150i that Dell resells from EMC Corp.

The MD3000i uses SAS disks, and also offers snapshots and volume copy software features. The box provides active/active controllers and hot-swappable hardware components, such as power supplies and fans, high-availability features that are uncommon in storage products aimed at small and midsized businesses (SMB). The system's software includes setup wizards for matching iSCSI-connected hosts to targets on the storage subsystem. Pricing will start at $7,000 for a system with one drive or $13,000 for a system with seven drives.

Dell announced the MD3000i via webcast on Monday. During the announcement, Dell executives were asked about the difference between the new storage area network (SAN) box and the company's AX150i storage array. Although the MD3000i is positioned in the same general SMB space as the Dell/EMC AX150i, the AX150i only scales to 9 TB, rather than 18 TB, supports multiprotocol access for both Fibre Channel and iSCSI, and, unlike the MD3000i, has replication capability built in.

According to Darren Thomas, general manager and vice president of storage for Dell, replication is an advanced software feature and does not belong in a low-end product, such as the MD3000i. Users in the audience, at the unveiling of the MD3000i who asked about replication, were directed by Thomas to the AX150i. "[Replication] is a classic case of one of the differentiators to the Dell/EMC line," he said.

A company spokesperson confirmed that it's not entirely Dell IP in the MD3000i, but would not name the OEM partner. Rumor has it the product is based on LSI Corp.'s 1333 array, also recently rebranded by IBM. The 1333, an iSCSI array, uses SAS disks and, according to IBM's product details, can supply a dual-controller configuration for roughly $10,000. Finally, the GUI demonstrated by Dell during the webcast looked nearly identical to screenshots available on the Web of LSI's Simplicity Storage Manager software.

Thomas added that the MD3000i box also shares many hardware components with the Dell PowerVault server line, the better to market to the IT generalists who usually comprise an SMB's technical staff. "The MD3000i is meant for SMB customers who already have an affiliation to the server and a limited IT budget," he said. "If they have larger capacity needs or need to manage storage independently from servers, that's where they're best suited to the Dell/EMC line."

EMC's response to the announcement of the MD3000i yesterday echoed the comments from Dell's executives. "This product is certainly no surprise to EMC, as EMC and Dell are in constant communication," an EMC spokesperson said. "Each system serves different markets and customer needs."

Industry watchers aren't entirely convinced. "There has clearly been success between Dell and EMC, based on the fact that Dell accounts for 15.5% of EMC's total revenue [and] 35% of Clariion revenue," said Brian Babineau, senior analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG). "However, if there's one area Dell's looking to expand and improve its storage product lines because of market demand, it's low-end storage."

Babineau added that the biggest differentiator for some users between the MD3000i and the AX150i may be the remote set up support that comes with the new system. Dell can configure a newly installed MD3000i via a network connection without sending a technician onsite, a service not available with the Dell/EMC AX150i.

"I think there's a certain panache to the EMC name in the 'M' part of the SMB market, and that's going to command a premium," said Brett Schechter, storage product manager for The Planet, a hosted service provider and one of Dell's largest U.S. customers for both servers and storage. Schechter said he had not yet evaluated the MD3000i and just recently began offering a dedicated backup server to application hosting customers based on a cobbled-together system of a Dell server and R1Soft's backup software. "This could potentially fill the gap between that offering and our dedicated SAN offering, which is one of the most expensive items we have under management."

Dell has not been a heavy hitter in the storage market, but that picture may be changing, according to Schechter. "When we go to find a storage system for customers who require certain features outside what we already offer, Dell increasingly has been the vendor we end up going with."

A general move downmarket

The Dell news follows announcements this week from two other vendors, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) and Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp), of new storage systems targeted at midrange customers. It's reminiscent of last year's trend in the storage industry toward bringing storage products downmarket. According to ESG analyst Babineau, this latest shift to the low end has a different inspiration: VMware.

There have been other trends in the global economy resulting in an increasing number of small enterprises around the world over the last two to three years, he said. However, Babineau added, "one [trend] that some vendors really weren't ready for was the 'VMware effect'," which has been spurring sales of networked storage, particularly iSCSI storage, for use with high-availability and data migration features in VMware's Infrastructure 3 (VI3).

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