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Dell execs talk scale-out NAS, data reduction, 3PAR, EMC

Dell storage chief Darren Thomas and other Dell execs discuss the company’s storage strategy, with plans for scale-out NAS, data optimization and where Compellent fits in the mix.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Dell Inc. has transformed its data storage portfolio since early 2010 with the acquisitions of array vendor Compellent Technologies, data reduction specialist Ocarina Networks and scale-out NAS IP from Exanet. In that time it also lost a bidding war against Hewlett-Packard (HP) for 3PAR and began to wind down its long storage partnership with EMC. At Dell Storage Forum 2011 this week, spoke about those developments with Dell storage vice president Darren Thomas, Dell Compellent president Phil Soran and executive director of Dell storage product management Brett Roscoe. How much did you have to change your strategy after HP outbid you for 3PAR and you bought Compellent instead?

Thomas: 3PAR is a company that went into play. The timing was not determined by us. The big challenge for me was that it was a mainframe-class product. It really competed with [EMC] Symmetrix or Hitachi Data Systems. Our entire relationship with EMC was based on selling Clariion. And this product was in the Symmetrix class. During the due diligence, I looked at how could I take this product and bring it down [to the midrange]. It was clear to us that there already was a product in this space.

3PAR was a science project for me. I was going to get a bunch of really cool technologies and I was going to have to work for years to deliver what Compellent has today.

Darren Thomas, vice president, Dell storage

Phil and I met in the middle of the 3PAR issue. I was trying to bring an alternative very early. First, I thought the price for 3PAR got way too high [HP paid $2.35 billion]. It was a ridiculous price for that technology. Second of all, it was a science project for me. I was going to get a bunch of really cool technologies and I was going to have to work for years to deliver what Compellent has today. For me it was go with ‘Mister-I-have-it-now.’

Roscoe: If we had acquired 3PAR, there still would have been a need to acquire Compellent. The space Compellent addresses is more complementary to EqualLogic. So you might have bought both?

Thomas: 3PAR didn't cover much of the Clariion space at all, and there’s very little overlap. Does Michael [Dell] agree? He would have had to write the check.

Thomas: You never get two checks ahead with Michael. It’s hard to get one check ahead. I don’t know if he agrees with that [buying both] or not. I know today he agrees with the choice we made. He’s probably the most avid Compellent salesman we have. NetApp has had a lot of success with one storage platform, which was also Compellent’s model. Even EMC has moved to consolidate its midrange storage. Will you ever try to get EqualLogic and Compellent into one platform?

Thomas: We’re addressing two different problems with these systems. It’s like saying can you make a car into a pickup truck and make them all one thing.

Soran: They did that once, the El Camino, it couldn’t carry anything.

Thomas: It’s not even something we openly discuss because we see these separate values, the separate markets. We’re addressing two different usage models.

Soran: You can make them so they’re managed similarly.

Thomas: We’re going to want Compellent to add value up the chain and EqualLogic to add value in the middle and not go up. When we only had EqualLogic, we were trying to go up, down and out. Now we have Compellent, we have up -- up is nailed. We don’t have to go up with EqualLogic, we need to go out and down a little bit. We came up with the [EqualLogic] PS4000, I don’t know how much lower we need to go. But EqualLogic can stop worrying about going up and Compellent can stop worrying about coming down. What kind of reaction do you get from customers who bought EMC Clariion from you when you go back to sell them Compellent?

Thomas: If they bought a Clariion from us, we’re not telling them they’re all wrong. We don’t try to insult the customer. But when their refresh cycles come up, we address the opportunity with the best technology we have, which is now Compellent. We're taking Compellent to many of our EMC customers that are at that refresh cycle. It’s time for them to buy a new device, and they’re faced with a forklift upgrade from EMC. They’re going to have to do that and they get to answer the question of whether they want to do this every three years or if they want this to be the last one. You’d be surprised that customers don’t worry about ‘what you sold me last time’; they’re trying to solve today and tomorrow’s problem, not yesterday’s.

Soran: We have a lot of experience migrating from EMC to us. The good news is that it’s pretty easy to do with us.

Roscoe: As much as the relationship is winding down, it’s still a great relationship.  It was one of the best partnerships I’ve seen in the industry, and it got Dell into the storage business. Granted, we’ve grown up, we’re developing IP and we hope that we can tie that together with our server and networking products. We own our roadmap, and we’re driving our own intellectual property. That’s a natural evolution. If a customer’s happy with EMC, we’re not looking to tick them off. We’ll continue to support and service them.

Thomas: We have some customers tell us no, they’re totally happy with that [EMC] relationship, and our relationship with EMC is still that we can continue to sell them. We’re not as strategic as we were, which means EMC’s not calling me wondering what the next-generation product’s going to look like. I already know, and I’m not going to tell them. This week you put Exanet scalable NAS technology on an appliance for EqualLogic and you say you’ll be adding that NAS technology to Compellent. Will Compellent also use Exanet on an appliance?

Roscoe: The initial product will be just like what you’re seeing on EqualLogic; it will be a separate device.

Soran: We want to be able to add nodes and scale.

Thomas: We have the ability to drop that Exanet technology inside the array controller, but you want to scale these things independently. The Compellent device can serve up a thousand drives and you may need more than two-controller access for a thousand drives. So if the only way we delivered it was down in the controller, you wouldn’t be able to scale. The beauty of the Exanet file system is that it scales linearly as you add nodes, so we need the thing to be in an external node.

We will probably sell a low-end file system offering that's converged on the motherboard, but a customer will be able to transfer that to a node model and grow because you need nodes to grow. The Exanet file system keeps you from getting boxed in; you can grow capacity and performance independently. How does the deduplication and compression you acquired from Ocarina fit into your product plans?

Thomas: In our fluid data vision, compression is as fundamental as we understand RAID is today. You would hardly ever write to a device that doesn’t use some form of RAID. We believe compression will be as ubiquitous as RAID is to the customer. It won’t happen this year and may not happen next year, but in a few years from today that will happen. So it will be a fundamental technology, every system has to have it.

Ocarina, in its raw form, is compression. But we have to take the data out of the device because there's so much compute horsepower required. You have to move the data to compress it. Once you have it in your hands, once you’ve moved it to compress it, you can do anything you want when it comes to putting it back. We can put the compressed component back where we got it and just leave a note that says we have to rehydrate it when we read it -- it just takes a couple of milliseconds. Or we can move it and leave a marker that says when you need it, redirect, similarly to tiering but external to the chassis. Or we can make a copy of it and move the copy. Will compression be integrated with EqualLogic before Compellent?

Thomas: If our schedules stay the same as they are today, Ocarina dedupe will occur on both file systems [EqualLogic and Compellent] at the same time. We can do that on the file system node -- the EqualLogic FS7500 or the Compellent version of the FS7500.

Our intention is to build this fluid architecture, so I’ve got to put that [scale-out] file system everywhere. We have it on a PowerVault shipping today, we announced it on EqualLogic and will announce it on Compellent. There’s already a file system on our backup and recovery device, and we will put dedupe wherever those file systems are.

Compellent is a vertical stack of capabilities. EqualLogic is a vertical stack of capabilities. Ocarina is a technology that runs across all those. It may go on independent products, too, because there’s almost always an appliance. Will you also use Ocarina software for a backup target device?

Thomas: Will we create appliances form it? Absolutely. I think appliances have their place. Large customers don’t like them because there’s too much sprawl, but for medium-sized customers it’s the easy way to deploy. As much as big customers don’t like appliances, they’ll buy them if they’re a good answer for what they need.

So if you’re asking will we deploy Ocarina in an appliance like a Data Domain device, the answer is yes.


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