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Dell EMC: Storage giant shifts gear to cloud operating models

Storage profile: We look at Dell EMC, the result of the biggest tech acquisition ever, and find a company well set for ubiquitous cloud operating models and as-a-service

In this storage vendor profile we look at Dell EMC, the infrastructure solutions group of Dell Technologies and the result of the biggest acquisition in tech sector history.

Dell EMC is the biggest player among storage array makers in terms of market share. Most of its products are now the result of EMC coming into the fold after the $67bn acquisition closed in 2016.

When looking at Dell EMC, its origins, its key storage products and its approach to the cloud, containers and consumption models of storage purchasing, what you find is a company – alongside Dell’s client solutions group – that can go to customers with the full IT stack but which also, like other storage players, now offers a comprehensive hybrid cloud strategy, container storage solutions and a cloud operating model across all locations.

Where did Dell EMC come from?   

The story of Dell EMC storage is chiefly a tale of two key elements: Dell and EMC. Dell bought enterprise SAN big beast EMC for $67bn in 2016, which also brought in virtualisation pioneer VMware.

Dell was founded in 1984 by Michael Dell while a student in Texas, where he started to sell IBM-compatible PCs. The company made big gains from the early consumer PC market and saw off competitors, but by the early 2000s it started to expand beyond PCs while sales growth slowed.

Dell made its first foray into storage in 2008 when it bought iSCSI SAN player EqualLogic. It also added tiered storage SAN specialist Compellent in 2011.

The company’s big move for EMC was announced in 2015, and closed in 2016.

EMC was founded in 1979 in Massachusetts, originally as a maker of computer memory boards. In the 1980s it expanded into the then new networked storage products market and launched the enterprise SAN Symmetrix in 1990.

As part of the acquisition by Dell, EMC brought a large range of well-developed storage products that included: block storage in the shape of Symmetrix successor VMAX, as well as VNX and Unity; XtremIO high performance flash; Isilon scale-out NAS, and ECS object storage. 

How does Dell EMC rank against other storage players?

By the second quarter of 2021, IDC ranked Dell EMC top among the big six storage array makers with market share of 27%. That was quite a long way ahead of HPE (11%), NetApp (10%), Huawei (9%), Hitachi and IBM (both just under 5%), and Pure Storage (4.1%).

Dell was ranked in the 2000 Fortune 500 at 56th - by 2023 parent group Dell Technologies was 34th.

In 1996 Dell revenues were $5.3bn. That increased to around $60bn between 2008 and 2012. After that revenues declined to a low of $51bn in 2016, only to begin recovery following absorption of EMC to stand at $102bn in 2023.  

What are Dell EMC’s key storage products?

PowerMax SAN and NAS arrays – formerly EMC’s VMAX – are NVMe flash-equipped products aimed at critical databases, big virtual machine (VM) clusters and mainframes. PowerMax comes in two series, the 2000 and 8000, both 4U and scaling to 1.2PB and 4.5PB respectively with additional capacity possible. PowerMaxOS version 10 added acceleration enabled by Nvidia BlueField DPUs. With that, acceleration of 5x for VMs and 3x for mainframes was possible as it was offloaded to the DPU from the processors.

In the midrange, PowerStore is the successor to the EMC VNX and Unity lines. PowerStore comes in series that run from the 500 to the 9200, with three incremental models between. All hold 90-plus drives in 2U enclosures, with maximum capacity per appliance in the 4.5PB region. Its SAN and NAS arrays that run the latest version (3.6) of PowerStoreOS have automated high availability storage failover to a secondary site, hot swapping of storage nodes, and vVols volumes for VMware VMs via NVMe-over-TCP.

The former EMC Isilon scale-out NAS is now called PowerScale, with F900, F600, F200 and Isilon 800 and 810 models offered. The F900 and F600 are all-NVMe with capacity that can reach 186PB and 60PB raw per cluster, when the maximum 250-plus nodes are deployed. They can also employ QLC and TLC flash for greater storage densities. The flagship F900 is aimed at media and entertainment 8K processing, genomics, algorithmic trading, AI, machine learning and HPC workloads. The F200 uses 2.5” flash drives and can reach 7.7PB in a cluster. The Isilon appliances are all-non-NVMe flash too and can scale to 58PB per cluster.

The former EMC ScaleIO software-defined storage is now PowerFlex. Dell uses it for its hyper-converged infrastructure under the same name, but is also used as the basis for pre-configured full-rack systems and appliances, or in the AWS cloud. Dell's 4.5 update to PowerFlex includes tighter integration with CloudIQ, the vendor's AIOps tool to monitor and automate cloud and on-premises infrastructure.

ECS is Dell’s object storage hardware family, which is aimed at unstructured data storage. ECS appliances come as the EX500, EX5000 and EXF900 product lines. Only the latter is all-flash, with the EX500 and 5000 taking SATA HDDs. Capacities range from the low 100s of TB to 7.6PB, 14PB and just under 6PB in 2U, 5U and 2U respectively.

What markets and workloads does Dell EMC target?

Dell EMC storage covers all bases, from the most performance-hungry database and transactional workloads, through AI, HPC and media processing, to all general workloads, including entry level and SME storage. Block, file and object storage, and mainframe use cases can be handled by product families in the Dell EMC range.

How does the cloud fit Dell EMC strategy?

Dell EMC has long had public and private cloud connectivity from its storage hardware. This include Cloud Mobility for PowerMax, which uses Docker containers on the PowerMaxOS, and Cloud Storage for Multi-Cloud, which also allowed high-speed low-latency connections between PowerStore and PowerScale hardware and private and public clouds.

That capability now seems to have been subsumed into the hybrid cloud features of Dell’s Apex consumption model (see below).

What is the Dell EMC container strategy? 

Dell EMC made Container Storage Modules (CSMs) generally available in 2021. CSMs are plug-ins that provide Kubernetes storage and data protection management that go beyond basic CSI functionality.

CSI drivers typically help provisioning, deleting, mapping and un-mapping volumes of data. But Dell EMC aims CSM at enterprise customers looking for more in terms of automation and control via a relatively simple user interface.

CSM users can access storage array features to which they normally wouldn’t have access. CSI plug-ins are available for all Dell’s storage hardware products.

What consumption models of purchasing does Dell EMC offer?

Dell EMC’s consumption model of purchasing is Apex, which allows customers to select from block, file and object storage hardware, plus data protection appliances.

But what’s new in 2023 is a heavy focus on the cloud operating model. At Dell Technologies World 2023, the company said it would offer customers the ability to extend the Dell experience to public cloud services ("ground to cloud"), bring the cloud experience to on-premises environments ("cloud to ground"), and provide an "air traffic control layer" to help monitor and manage it.

Apex customers work with Dell EMC to determine a “committed capacity” and “buffer capacity” that is likely to be required in the future. Raw and usable capacity data is measured at component level, daily averages are calculated and a monthly average then derived from that.

Dell also has a partnership with Equinix that offers data colocation in the UK for customers.

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