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The Dell Storage Tribe Gathers at Dell Storage Forum

The seemingly endless spring conference season continued this week, with no fewer than four significant events. While site editor Mike Fratto jetted off to sunny San Diego for Cisco Live, I drove off to Boston to Dell Storage Forum. There, I spoke with Dell executives, engineers and, most interestingly, customers to see how the company was progressing in transforming from a storage OEM to building its internal storage portfolio.

With 1,200 attendees, about 350 of them resellers or, as the vendors like to call them, channel partners, Dell Storage Forum was a lot more intimate than EMC World, which meant the Dell exes and engineers weren't distant actors on stage but out and about, talking to anyone who walked up. I found the change refreshing.

There were, of course, the new product announcements, including an EqualLogic array with 14 2.5-inch disks that slides into a double-wide slot in Dell's M1000 blade chassis, and a dual server and UPS appliance that will be the controllers in front of any of Dell's storage systems and run the scale-out Fluid File System Dell developed from technology it got in the Exanet acquisition. Even more importantly, Dell Storage Forum features a series of sessions that required attendees to sign a nondisclosure agreement, where the company opened the kimono and showed the road maps for both EqualLogic and Compellent for the next two years.

While I can't go into details, especially about timing, Dell is planning levels of integration between the product lines that other vendors haven't achieved, even though it has controlled its technology for decades. At some point in the future you will, for example, be able to replicate data between EqualLogic and Compellent arrays, allowing EqualLogics in branch offices to replicate to Compellents in the data center or Compellents to replicate to EqualLogics at the disaster recovery site.

Then there was Carter George's closing-day keynote, which didn't include Star Trek uniforms or Chad Sakac making a fool of himself, but instead featured every geek's favorite: a whiteboard session. There we not only found out that Dell is coming out with a virtual storage appliance version of the EqualLogic software and is going to use AppAssure as its path to cloudy goodness, but we also got a preview of Fluid Cache, its server-side SSD solution.

I've been spending a lot of time lately looking at server-side caching solutions to report if Fluid Cache is a step up from more basic products like Nevex's CacheWorks or EMC's VFcache. It's a distributed read-write cache that runs across a cluster of servers. Applications can access data in the local cache of the server they run on or data in another server's cache via remote direct memory access. While no delivery date was given, Dell did say the initial version would integrate with Compellent arrays to provide consistent snapshots by flushing the write cache when a snap is taken.

I did notice that while the users at Dell Storage Forum were generally enthusiastic about their Compellent and EqualLogic systems and the CoPilot support for Compellent systems, for the first time I heard a little bit of grumbling from the Compellent users. As Dell upgraded the software on the Compellent systems to a 64-bit BSD kernel, 32-bit eCOS, some customers with older controllers have been left behind. Where Compellent users could always update their software to get new features, users with older Series 30 controllers are disappointed that they'll have to get new controllers because Dell has frozen feature development on the 32-bit, version 5 code base.

Of course, these same users recognize that some of the new features require the greater processing power and memory of the new series 8000 controllers, which are for the first time based on Dell's own servers specifically the R820. So the feeling is a minor disappointment, not real anger I found it interesting that the Compellent users weren't quite the happy campers I've been used to.

Those users also recognize that with any other vendor, they'd be buying not only new controllers, but also a new system and new copies of all the software options they bought for their systems. In one session a Dell exec said that if a user had bought a leading vendor (meaning EMC's) array five years ago and was replacing it, he or she would have to pay more than $70,000 for software options on the new array that with Dell would carry over to the new controllers, as it was the same system.

Dell is serious about being a serious contender in the storage market--at least in the midrange--and has shown customers and resellers a road map that should get them there.

Disclaimer: Dell has hired DeepStorage LLC to do testing, has hired me to speak at internal events and paid for my travel to Boston for the event.