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Dell Enterprise Forum: Convergence, flash cache still on roadmap

Dell storage news focused on Compellent at its enterprise forum, but execs promise EqualLogic upgrades and integration between platforms.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- "This year will be our biggest ever in storage as far as new innovation and new IP," Marius Haas, Dell's president of enterprise solutions, proclaimed on the opening day of the 2013 Dell Enterprise Forum.

Little of that innovation was on display at the show. Dell did launch a Compellent flash array, and outlined plans to add post-process primary deduplication and compression for Compellent and EqualLogic later this year. But a lot of the innovation Haas referred to remains on the roadmap, especially on the EqualLogic iSCSI SAN side.

Storage vice presidents Pete Korce (head of EqualLogic and NAS) and Alan Atkinson (head of Compellent) spent a lot of time at the Dell Enterprise Forum explaining that roadmap to customers eager to find out the vendor's plans.

EqualLogic: stay tuned

The big storage news of the show concerned the flash for the Compellent Fibre Channel SAN platform, but Korce promised EqualLogic upgrades soon. "We have a lot of EqualLogic stuff coming in the fall," he said.

Dell executives won't say yet what is coming. But here is what is not coming for EqualLogic: a virtual storage appliance (VSA) all-flash array and Fluid Cache.

At the 2012 Dell Storage Forum, executives said an EqualLogic VSA called Host Virtualization Storage was in the works. Those plans have been scrapped, Korce said. "We made changes in the roadmap," he said. "We've decided we need to move forward with software-defined storage, but that wasn't the way to go."

"We are big fans of software-defined storage," Atkinson added. "We haven't given up on the [VSA] notion, we've just changed what the implementation is." A Compellent virtual appliance is possible, he said, adding that "we probably won't call it a VSA" and hinted that OpenStack would be part of it.

EqualLogic supports solid-state drives (SSDs) alongside hard drives in hybrid arrays, but Korce said there are no plans to optimize the arrays for all-flash as Dell did with Compellent this week. He said all-flash doesn't fit the EqualLogic use case -- which primarily is to run back-office applications in heavily virtualized server environments -- because it makes it too expensive and doesn't require the performance a flash array brings.

Convergence is coming

A major complaint about Dell storage over the past three years was that it was slow in integrating technologies from acquisitions. Dell this week finally announced concrete plans to put Ocarina post-process deduplication and compression for primary storage into the Fluid File System used for Compellent and EqualLogic. Interaction between Compellent and EqualLogic SANs remains a roadmap item, but Atkinson said it is a priority.

"You'll see a lot more affinity between Compellent and EqualLogic," Atkinson said. He said that since Dell bought Compellent in 2010, customers have asked to be able to replicate between platforms and integrated management. "That's going to happen," he said.

Dell has given EqualLogic some of the features of Compellent's Co-Pilot support program. These include phone-home and the ability to make recommendations proactively about management decisions, such as RAID policies. But Korce said that with more than 50,000 EqualLogic customers, Dell can't offer the option of having a live system analyst provide ongoing analysis, as it does with Compellent.

The convergence between Compellent and EqualLogic could extend to branding. Nobody from Dell would admit it, but there are whispers that the vendor is moving toward dropping the Compellent and EqualLogic names in favor of a common brand, such as "Dell Storage."

The Dell storage chiefs said the convergence would continue with other Dell technologies. An example of that is the PowerEdge VRTX system launched this week that includes servers, storage and networking for small offices.

Four-controller Compellent arrays? No time soon

Since the Compellent acquisition, Dell executives have left open the door to extending Compellent from a two-controller architecture to a four-controller configuration commonly used in competitors' large enterprise arrays. While that is still under consideration, there is no indication that it's a priority. Dell is instead trying to make Compellent more of an enterprise play through such features as its all-flash arrays and Fluid Cache.

Big plans for Fluid Cache for SAN

Project Hermes -- server-side flash caching -- was a big theme of the Dell Storage Forum a year ago. Dell rolled out a version of that called Fluid Cache for DAS in March that runs across servers. At the Dell Enterprise Forum, Dell said the next step is Fluid Cache for SAN, which would work across Compellent arrays.

Fluid Cache for SAN will use PCIe flash in servers, remote directory memory access over Ethernet technology for mirroring for high availability, and Compellent back-end storage. The plan is to make a faster tier than even the SSDs in the array. Dell gave a demo of that Wednesday, but hasn't set a date for delivering it. There are no plans to deliver Fluid Cache for EqualLogic arrays. "We will give our EqualLogic customer base a way to leverage what we're doing, but I won't say how yet," Atkinson said.

Software-defined storage? Of course

Despite scrapping the EqualLogic virtual appliance, Dell execs still talk about software-defined storage. Like others in the industry, the vendor is still trying to come up with a definition to fit its strategy.

Atkinson defined it as "basically, the ability to buy your controller logic as software. That means I can purchase a software license that is hardware-independent, so the licensing model is detached from hardware drives." Compellent's licensing model -- which doesn't require customers to pay for software again if they buy a new controller -- is an example of software-defined storage, he said.

Backup in the background

Dell's data protection products -- AppAssure, the DR4000 deduplication target appliance and backup software acquired from Quest Software -- now are all part of the company's software group. There were no data protection announcements at the Enterprise Forum.

Acquisitions give way to integration

Dell has been an active acquirer of storage companies over the past few years, but Atkinson and Korce said acquisitions will probably slow now as the company focuses on integration. It will try to fill holes through partnerships instead, they said.

Dell recently forged a partnership with startup Nexenta, putting ZFS-based NexentaStor unified storage software on Dell severs for what Korce called "cheap and deep low-end storage."

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Can't wait for integration of Compellent and EqualLogic. This will make IT support for our outsourcing clients easier. Four-controller arrays for Compellent would be nice.