18 May Dell EMC Storage: Supercars And Freight Trains

It was no surprise that the crowd of ten thousand technology practitioners and engineers cheered the appearance of a McLaren supercar driving across the stage at the 2018 Dell Technologies World event earlier this month. The McLaren, and the Formula One racing technology behind it is an engineering wonder. During a race, a McLaren F1 racing car sends tens-of-thousands of data points each second to a high-performance computing cluster located somewhere near the pit. The cluster can sport upwards of eighteen thousand CPU cores (sorry, per Formula One rules, no GPUs allowed!). That data, from seventeen thousand onboard sensor points, is fed into AI algorithms which are analyzed in real-time to offer driver suggestions to change what she’s doing and, more critically, to automatically implement tuning modifications on the car during its next pit stop. This is an apt metaphor for the vision that Dell Technologies is painting. Enterprises are inundated with data. Organizations that understand how to leverage that data, analyze it for insights, and tune their operations are the organizations that will be successful in the new analytics-fueled world. Data at rest is a depreciating asset.

Later, during the same keynote, the rail freight operator Rio Grande Pacific Corporation was highlighted as a technology partner. The railroad industry is an exercise in logistics, power, and flexibility. The Rio Grande Pacific Corporation packs as much freight as possible into discrete freight cars, which are harnessed to the appropriate amount of locomotive power needed to pull them to their destination. The freight cars are often routed over multiple tracks and trains to reach the intended destination via the shortest path. Every day looks a just a little bit different, but the operators manage it all through a consistent control plane with a single-system view of the world. Freight trains, too, are an apt metaphor for the vision that Dell Technologies is delivering. Railroads are a real-world instantiation of kinetic infrastructure. Organizations need data delivered reliably and consistently. Different amounts of processing and storage power are required for different workloads.   At the same time, IT organizations need the ability to manage all of their data and compute as a single whole.

Dell EMC delivered to this first vision with the announcement of a supercar of a storage array, the PowerMax.  More intriguingly, they set the stage for a coming freight train of a converged solution.  Marrying the beastly PowerMax series to a new generation of fabric-driven compute with the PowerEdge MX will enable a new generation of flexible infrastructure. Rounding out the vision was a range of products and services, which Moor Insights & Strategy has detailed in various Forbes articles. Patrick Moorhead provides a great wrap-up of the announcements here and here, while Rhett Dillingham provides his unique perspective here.

Welcome PowerMax, goodbye VMAX

The PowerMax is Dell EMC’s first all NVMe storage array. PowerMax replaces VMAX in the product line, providing a much-needed refresh in that space. This first release is delivered in two flavors, addressing the needs of both the mid-range and high-end of the storage market. The PowerMax 2000 is a mid-range solution. It delivers 1.7M IOPs capability against a 1PBe capacity.   At the other end of the spectrum, the PowerMax 8000 is a monster of a storage array, delivering 10M IOPs with a 4PBe capacity. Both models are configurable as multiple nodes, which Dell EMC calls PowerBricks.  The PowerMax 2000 can be installed as either 1 or 2 PowerBricks, while the PowerMax 8000 arrives in configurations up to 8 PowerBricks.   Both flavors are expected to support NVMe-over-FC later this year.

The PowerMax sports a new ASIC-assisted compression and dedupe engine. Dell EMC claims that optimal data can be reduced up to 5 times, though more typical workloads will land in the 2-3 times range.  This reduction is in the same ballpark as other storage arrays of this class, though the use of ASICs allows these ratios with the IOPs advertised.  I’m not sure that we’ve ever seen 5X data reduction at 10M IOPs before.

It’s all about the analytics

Hiding inside the PowerMax system is an artificial intelligence and machine learning engine.  The AI engine is used for predictive analytics, which is itself fast becoming table stakes in storage.  The AI engine is also used for intelligent analysis of data flowing through the array to drive both tuning optimizations and intelligent placement. Dell EMC described the AI as performing pattern recognition on the I/O flowing through the array and recommending and performing dynamic tuning.  As storage class memory (SCM) begins sees adoption in storage arrays, new concerns about data placement on those devices will become more critical. The AI engine is there to address those concerns.

Over 425 billion data sets were collected in real-time on Dell EMC all-flash arrays and analyzed by Dell EMC data scientists. This comprehensive training provides the initial training embedded in the PowerMax AI.  That’s a firm basis on which to build. Embedding artificial intelligence and self-learning systems into a device like the PowerMax makes much sense. It’s still early days for this class of AI, but I expect that the industry will see a rapid progression of precisely these kinds of learning systems. As it stands today, Dell EMC is alone with this capability.

Kinetic infrastructure

The power of a converged infrastructure lay in the ability to reconfigure resources to meet the needs of shifting workloads dynamically.  Fungible resources, coupled with robust orchestration software, becomes kinetic. It is the ultimate convergence story, and convergence is precisely where the PowerEdge MX is targeted. Dell EMC describes the new server as the first modular infrastructure targeted server. It is designed for reconfiguration, low network latency, and extreme I/O speeds. Coupled with NVMe-over-FC, it brings the PowerMax into the software-defined world.

As fast and powerful as the PowerMax may be, it has the potential to become a freight train when coupled with the upcoming PowerEdge MX. A server designed from the ground-up to be integrated into a broader fabric of a software-defined infrastructure could be game-changing.  The proof will be in the delivery. The converged infrastructure world is a shrinking one, with only Dell EMC, IBM Corporation, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise owning all of the piece parts to drive it forward. Dell EMC comes to the game with clear market leadership in the space with its vxRail and vxBlock solutions.  While Dell EMC didn’t say specifically, I expect that PowerEdge MX and PowerMax will slide right into that portfolio. The PowerEdge MX was only previewed, with a formal announcement expected later this year.

The world’s fastest array

Dell EMC claims that the PowerMax 8000 is the “world’s fastest storage array.” I have no way of knowing if that is true. Like so much in the technology world, context is everything. It’s going to be workload and data-dependent. These sorts of titles are often just one component upgrade away from being taken away. Whether or not it’s the world’s fastest array, the PowerMax 8000 keeps Dell EMC a member of a rarified club of technology providers that can deliver performance of this caliber. This club includes IBM Corporation with its FlashSystem 900, NetApp with its just-updated AFF A800, and Pure Storage with its FlashArray//X series.

Notably missing from this club is Hewlett Packard Enterprise. While announcing an upgrade to its mid-range Nimble Storage line on May 7, 2018, HPE bafflingly stated that NVMe is not ready for mainstream usage. Every other storage vendor seems to disagree, with Pure Storage being particularly vocal in its opinion. NVMe isn’t a solution to every problem, but it does bring an overall throughput and latency benefit that can’t be matched by a SATA solution. It’s not a technology that is needed in all arrays, but it’s required to play in the performance storage space. Dell EMC understands this. A buyer looking for the world’s fastest storage array has only a small array of options, and the Dell PowerMax sits near the top.