Review: EMC's Storage Arrays Do The Heavy Lifting

At the same time, the storage giant for the first time is targeting down-market and department-level customers with VNXe, a low-cost version of the storage arrays series that offers many of the same features of the higher-end line, including high speed, high availability, scalability and snapshot data protection. List prices start at $9,513 for a terabyte of 15K SAS storage in a 2U enclosure; $12,079 with redundancy.

EMC invited the CRN Test Center to Hopkinton, Mass, home of the company's storage development labs, to evaluate the VNXe one week prior to the launch. They were still tweaking parts of the user interface, but the underlying functionality appeared to be solid and fully baked. It was the interface that we were most interested in, since EMC characterized simplicity and ease-of-setup and use as primary differentiators of the line along with cost and versatility.

"The typical user of a VNXe product will be the small company or departments," said Steve Marchesano, director of product management for EMC's Storage Software Platform Group. And those target customers, he added, sometimes include departments that have found themselves cut off from the larger organization and are doing their own buying, installations and support. "And the person doing the set-up and maintenance often has no experience with dedicated storage systems and are unfamiliar with terms like storage pool, iSCSI and LUN," he said.

To cater to novice installers, EMC has attempted to automate most of the process of discovering unconfigured devices (via UPnP), configuring storage pools, setting up an Exchange Storage Server, allocating storage to VMware instances, and so on. And from what we saw, its Flex-based Element Manager browser software does a pretty good job of shielding installers from these complexities, automatically selecting defaults based on industry best practices and using vendor-specific language and terminology as the case may be. The software provides two levels of administrator, permitting advanced staff to see more of what's going on and preventing those with less skill to cause damage.

Next: Smooth Integration With VMware

For example, to provision an Exchange Storage Server was literally a mater of seven clicks, with the only values to input being the number of users (default=10), and whether to enable thin provisioning (default=no) and snapshots (default=yes). The seventh step is to confirm settings on the summary page, which displays the settings that were input along with defaults and others chosen automatically, any of which can be directly edited by an advanced admin without going back to the beginning.

Even better is the new system's integration with VMware. Storage provisioning can be completed from within EMC's browser pages, which finds ESX hosts, accepts credentials and creates a representation of the VMware host right in the storage server, either with NFS or VMware's VMFS. Once completed, the datastore (as it's called in VMware) pops right up in vCenter; there's no need for any additional steps in VMware's management tool.

Then there's the Carousel, EMC's health and support utility for the VNXe. Most systems offer some kind of graphical representation of hardware in software, with live portions reacting to mouse clicks and displaying device and health info in real time. Dell's EqualLogic arrays are particularly adept at this. But EMC takes the feature to a whole new level. The support tab shows a rotating replica of the array with hovered-over components encased in green, yellow or red to indicate their health.

In the left-hand pane, the highlighted component's proper name and/or part number is displayed in a standard tree (which also can be used to navigate directly to device parts), while in the carousel a balloon appears (a la Google Maps) with its vital data and a few links, including one to context-sensitive help.

Also among the links is live chat, which connects with a person in either Hopkinton, India or elsewhere depending on the time of day. Another link brings up an order form, with the component's part number and many of the other fields pre-populated. This is an extremely useful feature that's relatively complicated to implement, and EMC has done a terrific job with it.

Next: VNXe 3100, 3300 Ready To Ship On tap to begin shipping next week are the VNXe 3100 (2U) and VNXe 3300 (3U) arrays. Both run on Intel Xeon multi-core processors (3100 is dual core; 3300 is quad-core), support the 6Gbps SAS drive spec and provide two 1Gbps Ethernet ports and dual data-path.

The 3100 array has two 1GBps IP iSCSI host ports per controller, and can control between six and 96 drives through up to 12, 3.5-inch drive expansion chassis for a total of 192 TB of raw capacity. The 3300 has four 1GBps IP iSCSI host ports per controller, and can handle between seven and 120 drives through as many as 15 chassis and also supports solid state drives. Both support CIFS, NFS and iSCSI, as well as RAID 5, 6 and 10.

EMC's VNXe storage arrays are extremely well equipped, and with a starting list price under $10,000, represent an excellent value. When compared to some of the other arrays we've looked at, Nimble's CS-Series comes closest to the level of automation offered in EMC's VNXe, but does (and costs) a whole lot more.

In terms of price, Dot Hill's 3920/3930 arrays are closest (but not close) at $19,000 unpopulated. For support, Dell's EqualLogic arrays will be hard to beat.

The entry level VNXe 3100 lists for $9,513, including six 300-GB 15K SAS drives (6Gbps), file and block RAID capability, Unishpere management software, CIFS, NFS and iSCSI protocols, file deduplication and compression, thin provisioning and local replication through snapshots.

Substitute with 1TB SAS drives for $9,992 list. Add redundancy (a second active storage controller) to the former model and the list becomes $12,079. The 3100 includes a three year warranty with 5x9 support and next business day parts replacement. Units begin shipping in February.