Hybrid flash horse is a winner, but did Dell mean to back it?

When reflecting on the rise of flash storage over the last couple of years it’s easy to come to the conclusion that some storage vendors have been more active, more free-spending, more progressive in the marketplace.

I have in mind the likes of EMC and IBM, with their big ticket flash startup acquisitions and the million-plus IOPS products that lead their all-flash offerings.

At the same time it has been easy to regard, for example, Dell (and others that have opted to retrofit existing arrays), that have not invested in dedicated all-flash arrays in the same way as EMC and IBM, as perhaps lagging behind somewhat.

But it has become apparent that hybrid flash is the most common application of SSD and that all-flash arrays are very much a minority interest. In a blog last year I cited a 451 Group survey that showed 67% of respondents had installed flash in SAN or NAS arrays while only 8% had all-flash arrays deployed.

So, as time has passed it has started to look like Dell may have hit the right spot in the market. Or maybe the right spot in the market has hit Dell?

Dell has all-flash array offerings; the Dell Compellent SC4020 can be completely populated with SSD. But its flash forays have largely been into the world of hybrid. The SC4020 can also house HDDs and there is also an EqualLogic iSCSI hybrid flash array, the PS6210XS.

It looks like Dell has been the beneficiary of a happy accident, but according to storage general manager, Alan Atkinson, Dell’s bet in the hybrid vs all-flash stakes was a cert for a long time.

“It’s a bit of a philosophical question,” said Atkinson. “And we have taken sides.”

“We considered all the options and honestly believed we didn’t need to buy a flash startup or develop flash systems from the ground up. And I think the market has demonstrated that we didn’t need to.”

Atkinson’s view is that flash is a disruptive technology but that it has transitioned from being most suited to high performance use cases.

“All-flash arrays started off expensive and were targeted at use cases that didn’t need the full range of features like replication etc.”

“That’s a market and it is what it is. But what’s happened is that as flash prices have decreased it has become a more general purpose storage medium.”

Luckily for Dell, according to Atkinson, its Compellent storage operating system (OS), with its tiering capabilities, lent itself well to uses where flash is mixed with spinning media, and was re-written to some extent to optimise it for these use cases.

So, says Atkinson, Dell has no need for a separate all-flash array platform, especially as its customers want a common interface across HDD and SSD storage, or as he put it (IT marketing euphemism alert!), “all the wood behind one arrow,” which, of course, you don’t get with EMC or IBM, whose all-flash arrays run on discrete OSs.

It’s quite a compelling argument, and the net result is that Dell has solid product offerings in flash in all but the most high-performance use cases. But was it what was intended all along? Hmm, well, the jury is still out on that one for me.