I was invited by Dell to be a part of their first ever Enterprise Forum. You may remember this event from the past when it was known as Dell Storage Forum, but now that Dell has a bevy of enterprise-focused products in their portfolio a name change was in order. The Enterprise Forum still had a fair amount of storage announcements. There was also discussion about networking and even virtualization. One thing seemed to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue from the moment it was unveiled on Tuesday morning.
Say hello to Dell’s newest server platform – VRTX (pronounced “vertex”). The VRTX is a shift away from the centralized server clusters that you may be used to seeing from companies like Cisco, HP, or IBM. Dell has taken their popular m1000 blade units and pulled them into an enclosure that bears more than a passing resemblance to the servers I deployed five or six years ago. The VRTX is capable of holding up to 4 blade servers in the chassis alongside either 12 3.5″ hard drives or 25 2.5″ drives, for a grand total of up to 48 TB of storage space. What sets VRTX apart from other similar designs, like the IBM S-class BladeCenter of yore, is the ability for expansion.
Rather than just sliding a quad-port NIC into the mezzanine slot and calling it a day, Dell developed VRTX to expand to meet future needs of customers. That’s why you’ll find 8 PCIe slots in VRTX (3 full height, 5 half height). That’s the real magic in this system. For example, the VRTX ships today with 8 1GbE ports for network connectivity. While 10GbE is slated for a future release you could slide in a 10GbE PCIe card and attach it to a blade if needed to gain connectivity. You could also put in a Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) Host Bus Adapter (HBA) and gain more expansion for your on-board storage. In the future, you could even push that to 40GbE or maybe one of those super fast PCIe SSD cards from a company like Fusion-IO. The key is that the PCIe slots give you a ton of expandability in such a small form factor instead of limiting you to whatever mezzanine card or expansion adapter has been blessed by the skunkworks labs for your supplying server vendor.
VRTX doesn’t come without a bit of controversy. Dell has positioned this system as a remote office/branch office (ROBO) solution that combines everything you would need to turn up a new site into one shippable unit. That follows along with comments made at a keynote talk on the third day about Dell believing that compute power has reached a point where it will no longer grow at the same rate. Dell’s solution to the issue is to push more compute power to the edge instead of centralizing it in the data center. What you lose in manageability you gain in power.
The funny thing for me was looking at VRTX and seeing the solution to a small scale data center problem I had for many years. The schools I used to serve didn’t need an 8 or 10-slot blade chassis. They didn’t need two Compellent SANs with data tiering and failover. They needed a solution to virtualize their aging workloads onto a small box built for their existing power and cooling infrastructure. VRTX fits the bill just fine. It uses 110v power. The maximum of four blades fits just perfectly with VMware‘s Essentials bundle for cheap virtualization with the capability to expand if needed later on. Everything is the same as the enterprise-grade hardware that’s being used in other solutions, just in a more SMB-friendly box. Plus, the entry level price target of $10,000 in a half-loaded configuration fits the budget conscious needs of a school or small office.
If there is one weakness in the first iteration of VRTX it comes from the software side of things. VRTX doesn’t have any software beyond what you load on it. It will run VMware, Citrix, Hyper-V, or any manner of server software you want to install. There’s no software to manage the platform, though. Without that, VRTX is a standalone system. If you truly wanted to use it as a “pay as you grow” data center solution, you need to find a way to expand the capabilities of the system linearly as you expand the node count. As a counterpoint to this, take a look at Nutanix. Many storage people at Enterprise Forum were calling the VRTX the “Dell Nutanix” solution. You can watch an overview of what Nutanix is doing from a session at Storage Field Day 2 last November:
The key difference is that Nutanix has a software management program that allows their nodes to scale out when a new node is added. That is what Dell needs to work on developing to harness the power that VRTX represents. Dell developed this as a ROBO solution yet no one I talked to saw it that way. They saw this as a building block for a company starting their data center build out. What’s needed is the glue to stitch two or more VRTX systems together. Harnessing the power of multiple discrete compute units is a very important part of breaking through all the barriers discussed at the end of Enterprise Forum.
Bigger is better. Except when it’s not. Sometimes good things really do come in small packages. Considering that Dell’s VRTX was a science project for the last four years being built as a proof-of-concept I’d say that Dell has finally achieved one thing they’ve been wanting to do for a while. It’s hard to compete against HP and IBM due to their longevity and entrenchment in the blade server market. Now, Dell has a smaller blade server that customers are clamoring to buy to fill needs that aren’t satisfied by bigger boxes. The missing ingredient right now is a way to tie them all together. If Dell can mulitplex their resources together they stand an excellent chance of unseating the long-standing titans of blade compute. And that’s a change worth fighting for.
I was invited to attend Dell Enterprise Forum at the behest of Dell. They paid for my travel and lodging expenses while on site in San Jose. They also provided a Social Media Influencer pass to the event. At no time did they place any requirements on my attendance or participation in this event. They did not request that any posts be made about the event. They did not ask for nor where they granted any kind of consideration in the writing of this or any other Dell Enterprise Forum post.