Dell Outlines Software-Defined Storage Strategy, With Compellent, Nexenta Playing Key Roles

Dell, which has made several acquisitions to become one of the top SMB and enterprise storage vendors, is looking to take its software-defined storage strategy to the next level.

Dell is combining its server technology with storage technology from its Compellent and EqualLogic product lines, as well as technology from third-party vendors, to establish a base in the still-nascent software-defined storage market, Travis Vigil, executive director of product management for Dell storage, said in a recent interview.

There is a lot of hype around software-defined storage, but it's an industry trend that Dell takes seriously, Vigil told CRN.

[Related: Is Software-Defined Storage For Real Or A Lot Of Hot Air?]

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"The software-defined enterprise is a key industry trend, and there's an evolution going on related to how companies are deploying enterprise infrastructures in the future," Vigil said. "IT is evolving to a software-defined solution in which the server is at the center of the infrastructure."

Software-defined storage pulls the kinds of storage services performed by typical storage hardware, including such functions as deduplication, replication, snapshots and thin provisioning, out of the hardware and into a software layer which can then be deployed on top of industry-standard server hardware.

Dell's software-defined strategy will likely be a major theme next week in Miami at the Dell User Forum, formerly known as the Dell Enterprise Forum.

Software-defined storage is becoming increasingly important as customers try to find ways to manage ever-growing data stores while driving down costs, said Paul Clifford, president of Davenport Group, a St. Paul-based solution provider and longtime Dell channel partner.

"What Dell is trying to do is abstract storage technology from the hardware, and make it into a true virtualized environment," Clifford told CRN.

Michael Tanenhaus, principal at Mavenspire, an Annapolis, Md.-based solution provider and longtime Dell channel partner, told CRN that there are so many different approaches to software-defined storage, and that Dell's approach to decoupling storage and networking from hardware paves the way for the future.

"Dell is making sure it's ready for the next wave," Tanenhaus said. "What will the next two to three years look like, we don't know. So Dell's getting ready now. Dell in the cloud or via software-defined whatever is concerned more about moving to manage the data rather than providing any particular solution."

NEXT: Broad Dell Approach To Software-defined Storage

Dell's strategy represents the industry's broadest approach to software-defined storage, Vigil said.

It includes Dell Fluid Cache for SAN, a caching software that runs across a minimum of three Dell servers, each of which includes a Dell PowerEdge Express Flash PCIe flash storage device.

Up to eight servers can be tied together with Dell Fluid Cache for SAN, as long as at least three are Dell servers with the Express Flash PCIe devices. Storage can be tiered across various technologies including SLC and MLC flash storage and Compellent storage

Dell Fluid Cache for SAN is an application-agnostic solution that benefits any applications such as Web services which require data IO from a storage subsystem, Vigil said.

"Compellent has Live Volume, which allows customers to move a virtual disk or LUN from one pair of controllers to another," he said. "This will be more automated in the future. Compellent today scales up. The new capabilities will mean adding scale out features in the future."

Dell also provides a wide range of storage automation technologies; the ability to move data across servers, arrays, and disks; and storage virtualization technologies, Vigil said.

Partnerships with vendors like Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nexenta, in which Dell holds an equity stake, are also critical to Dell's software-defined storage strategy, Vigil said.

Tarkan Maner, CEO of Nexenta, told CRN his company takes a software-only approach to storage virtualization with ties to VMware, Citrix, Microsoft, and OpenStack environments.

While all system vendors including Dell have their own storage platforms, customers also want choice in the cloud, which Nexenta can provide with its open source support, Maner said.

Customers can purchase Nexenta software on top of Dell storage hardware as a way to better integrate into multi-vendor storage environments, Maner said.

"Many customers might have storage technology from Dell, EMC, Hitachi, and so on for their tier-one storage needs," he said. "But in other areas, the price point becomes an issue, and customers prefer lower-cost solutions like Nexenta or low-cost servers."

Dell offers multiple server and JBOD storage configurations validated with Nexenta’s NexentaStor software-defined storage platform, giving customers the ability to purchase Nexenta-based solutions backed by Dell support, Vigil said.

Tanenhaus said that how Dell customers move to adopt software-defined storage depends on the workload.

NEXT: Partners Say Dell Already Has The Right Software-defined Storage Strategy

Dell has already moved to bring its Compellent storage solution to market using commodity Dell servers, Tanenhaus said. "There's never any fork-lift upgrade of Compellent storage because of software-defined storage, if you define software-defined storage as storage software that is independent of the hardware."

For those who define software-defined storage as virtualized workloads that are highly transportable, Dell has Nexenta, Tanenhaus said. "Nexenta don't take into account what the underlying hardware is," he said.

Regardless of how quickly data stores are growing, data has to be protected, accessible, managed, and scalable to meet customer requirements, Clifford said. Dell Compellent is truly software-defined storage in that customers are doing snapshots, deduplication, replication, and other storage services on commodity hardware, he said.

"All the things the industry is talking about, Dell's got it," he said. "The biggest piece of software-defined storage is moving the workloads around. Data needs to be where it needs to be. Compellent and Fluid Cache moves the data to where it needs to be. The abstraction of storage from proprietary hardware to servers is where it needs to be."

Dell is also not shy about working with partners like Nexenta, Clifford said.

"Dell is covering its bases," he said. "Dell is smart by picking the right partners to work with to expand its strategy for any workloads."

Dell is converging its Compellent and EqualLogic platforms and developing a common user console, and at the same time turning its PowerVault storage line into dense JBODs (just a bunch of disks, or non-RAID arrays), which Clifford said all feed into its software-defined strategy.

"Everything Dell is trying to do with software-defined strategy is to get to where Compellent already is," he said. "Compellent is the only completely virtual storage array down to the block level. Architecturally, it stands alone in the marketplace. If you look at the goals of software-defined storage, Dell is already there."