Dell Technologies World (DTW), held a few weeks ago in Las Vegas, is one of the most important events in the computer industry. It’s an event where nearly fifteen thousand technology professionals gather to hear one the industry’s most powerful companies’ vision for the future. There are visionary keynotes, celebrity sightings (the B-52s, Will.i.am!), parties, dinners, user groups, vendor exhibits, games galore, and dozens upon dozens of deeply technical sessions. It’s a good time for an IT techie.
The press and analyst community have a slightly different experience than the average attendee. Instead of attending technical sessions, Dell Technologies World is where we get to spend quality time with the company’s leadership. We hear the long-term vision first-hand and get to question those defining that vision very directly. Michael Dell and his direct reports are unbelievably accessible at these events, which is something we don’t typically see from any other company with the size and influence of Dell Technologies.
Analysts are also allowed time with CIOs from some of the most technologically innovative IT shops in the Fortune 1000. We spend our lunch hours learning about the emerging IT challenges corresponding with the rise of AI, multi-cloud architectures, new storage technologies, and a rapidly evolving world of software-defined everything. These engagements are one of the great perks of this job.
Beyond the vision, DTW is about solutions. It’s one thing to talk about a seamless multi-cloud world, where data and workflows migrate to where they are most effective, with data all living on Intel Corporation’s magical nearly-no-latency Optane technology. It’s quite another to learn about the real products that are enabling that future. This year’s DTW saw storage-focused announcements across many vectors. Let’s take a closer look.
Mid-Range Storage: What we saw, and what we didn’t
It’s a problem as old as the computer industry. A company pre-announces a new product or new architecture, and the world waits with bated breath. In the case of Dell EMC, that announcement is its upcoming mid-range storage refresh, “Midrange.next.” Instead of customers, it is the press and analyst community who are waiting with breath bated.
Midrange.next is expected to replace Dell’s mid-range storage line, which includes its Unity platform, the Dell EMC SC series, and Dell’s EqualLogic products. The new architecture is expected to be a new ground-up architecture designed to leverage the best of modern storage technology. This will simplify the offerings in Dell’s midrange storage line, while also delivering a common set of next-generation technologies that will serve as the basis for years to follow.
Jeff Clarke, Dell's vice chairman of products and operations, described the new storage architecture in press interviews as a ground-up effort that includes a new software stack comprised of a new filesystem, optimizations for scaling from NVMe to NVMe-over-fabric, and, ultimately, a memory persistent architecture.
It was a great disappointment to all of us storage nerds that Dell didn’t talk to us about the new architecture and underlying technologies. Dell did tell us that the new storage solution is being beta-tested with enterprise customers now. Based on many public interviews we’ve seen with various Dell executives, I expect that the new products hit the street before the end of the year.
Despite no details on Midrange.next, Dell did deliver improvements on its existing product line. The company updated Unity with the NVMe-ready Unity XT. The new Unity box is 2 times faster than the previous generation, and also promises to be nearly 70% faster than its closest competitor. Data efficiency and dedupe effectiveness is high across the industry, and Dell nails it here, gaining up to 5:1 data reduction. The Unity XT should keep Dell's current Unity customers happy, at least until we see what Midrange.next has to offer.
It's not all about the midrange though. High-performance storage and scalable NAS solutions are a critical part of any IT infrastructure. Dell serves these markets with its Dell EMC PowerMax and Isilon series, respectively. We didn’t go into DTW expecting major announcements on these products. Both PowerMax and Isilon are in good shape competitively, and Dell does a great job of keeping them current. It’s in keeping PowerMax and Isilon competitive that Dell announced a series of upgrades that will soon hit the production lines.
Bearing the fruits of a three-year collaboration between Intel and Dell to improve overall performance, scalability, and reliability of storage systems, Dell announced that its PowerMax would be the first storage array in the industry to support dual-port Optane SSDs. The dual-ported parts, which are NVMe-attached and equipped with two PCIe gen 3 lanes per port, purport to cut latency by an additional 50%. Given where Optane and PowerMax latencies are right now, this promises to be an insanely fast storage array. Dell touts the PowerMax as the "fastest storage array in the industry." It's nice to see Dell continue to deliver against that trajectory.
Dell’s Isilon line of scalable NAS solutions has long been a good fit for analytics and artificial intelligence. Isilon has a long history in media and entertainment, and it isn't lost on Dell that its optimizations for media meta-data apply to the needs of machine learning and deep learning environments. As deep learning enters the enterprise, it's natural that Dell evolves Isilon's file system to support this new world.
OneFS is the file system at the heart of Isilon. OneFS version 8.2 brings a slew of optimizations targeted at AI and deep learning. Beyond enhancements targeted at performance, cloud integration, and data protection, the new software enables massive scalability. Isilon with OneFS 8.2 delivers up to 75% greater capacity, with cluster scaling increasing from 144 today to 252 nodes.
These all appear to be great updates to an already strong product line.
Cloud storage services
Infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), or capacity-on-demand, is red-hot right now. Every top-tier technology provider seems to have a solution. Pure Storage delivers top-tier storage-as-a-service. Hewlett Packard Enterprises delivers storage and compute with its HPE GreenLake offerings, and announced in a recent earnings call that the service experienced its best quarter ever. IBM Corporation was a pioneer in delivering cycles-on-demand, and shows no signs of slowing down its efforts in the space. Lenovo offers IaaS, as does Huawei.
Dell has been slower than its competitors in entering this space as a service provider. It’s an understandable stance, as IaaS is a dangerous path for a full-stack solution provider like Dell. Cloud-delivered, or even on-site offerings, replace handsome top-line hardware revenue with more margin-friendly, but lower and more spread-out, services revenue. Differentiation becomes difficult. The lines start to blur between cloud providers, MSPs, and OEMs offering competing services. You compete against your customers in that market.
Dell’s approach to this market has been to lever its VMWare-enabled HCI and CI products into the hands of IaaS providers. This strategy seems to be based on the notion that it’s better to power that market than compete in it. It’s a good strategy. Dell has had great success moving its VxRail and VxRack products into the MSPs and other providers of IaaS. That’s not going to slow down.
Even so, the realities of the current IT market demand that full-service providers include cloud-based and IaaS offerings as part of their portfolios. Dell stepped into that game on the storage front at DTW with the announcement of its Cloud Storage Services. Dell EMC Cloud Storage Services extends on-site Dell EMC storage to storage hosted in the cloud. The cloud-based storage links storage-on-demand delivered by Dell's MSP partners with Unity, PowerMax, and Isilon in the data center.
The initial workload targets for Dell’s Cloud Storage Services include two use cases. Disaster Recovery as a Service automates disaster recovery for customers using Unity and PowerMax platforms. The second use case is multi-cloud agility—the ability to migrate data between various public and private cloud providers.
Dell’s Cloud Storage Services isn’t a direct competitor to offerings such as Pure Storage’s Evergreen Storage Service (ES2). Pure’s approach provides the benefits of its high-performance all-flash arrays to IT shops as a purely OpEx model, delivering storage services on-site, in a colocation facility, or in the public cloud. Dell’s approach is different. Dell’s Cloud Storage Services extends hardware inside of the data center into the cloud, and does so with the involvement of MSP partners.
It is still early in the cycle of enterprise adoption of multi-cloud architectures, and both types of solutions have their place. The market will evolve, as will the OEMs’ approach to that market.
I like Pure’s ES2 model and the high-level of flexibility it offers IT shops and the finance teams who take care of them. It's also nice to see Dell enabling its MSP partners in solving some genuine problems for big IT. Watching IaaS, multi-cloud, and public cloud impact IT architecture and the vendors who supply it will be endlessly fascinating for some time to come. It’s a fun space.
There was a lot going on at Dell Technologies World this year. This column is already very long, and I didn't even begin to touch on Dell's new data protection announcements, or the invasion of VMware software into nearly every nook and cranny of Dell's enterprise portfolio. It's worth looking around to understand everything that was announced.
Dell Technologies is perhaps the most influential company in IT technology. Michael Dell made massive bets over the past decade; bets won on the back of stellar execution and discipline from his leadership team. The company transformed itself from a PC-to-order shop to a lighthouse for enterprise computing technology. It's been great to watch.
Dell is a lighthouse, but it’s not alone. There is great innovation happening at HPE, IBM, Lenovo, Pure Storage, and even Huawei. Nutanix is stepping up to be a competitor to VMware in a way that nobody expected as we search for solutions to the multi-cloud world. Watch Dell, but watch everyone else as well. It’s an exciting time to be in IT.