Brief but necessary intro: Tech Field Day recently held a two-day special event focused on Dell Technologies storage and compute/HCI solutions, specifically PowerStore, PowerMax and VxRail (with bonus content on APEX and CloudIQ). Most of the topics were relevant to VMware admins and architects as the interoperability of Dell’s solutions with the vSphere (and above) stack was a common theme that accompanied the audience for the whole duration of the event.

If you want to watch the many presentations and the very cool demos, all the videos are available as usual on the event page for your async consumption. In this post (or perhaps series?) I’d like to gather a few ideas and impressions I collected as a delegate. This by no means will be an extensive and detailed analysis as I will stick to what impressed me, bookmarking concepts for my own reference. If you want to dig deeper or check other specific topics I am not touching here, go ahead and check the online videos, the nice people at Tech Field Day will appreciate it!

PowerStore basics

PowerStore is implicitly positioned by Dell Technologies as their “entry level” storage platform. Well, the first thing I realized is that calling PowerStore an “entry level” storage solution is not fair: it definitely looks different when compared with a more common Unity array but do not be fooled by its compact size, there’s plenty of features that make this solution have its own well-deserved spot in Dell’s storage portfolio. PowerStore’s architecture can be summarized as follows: in one 2U box (Dell unsurprisingly calls it an “appliance”) we find two active-active nodes independently running PowerStoreOS in lockstep (more on that later) and controlling a shared set of up to 25 NVMe drives (Flash or SCM – Storage Class Memory); this, according to Dell, ensures 99.99999% availability for each individual appliance. Capacity can be easily expanded via storage-only 2U shelves for scaling up. Data connectivity comes from the usual suspects by means of Ethernet and FC ports to support common storage protocols, but it is worth highlighting that end-to-end NVMe over FC connectivity has been recently enabled with the latest PowerStore software upgrade.

Nothing new so far, it still seems quite conventional in its own way. But there is more of course or this post would be pointless. Scaling out is obtained by adding more appliances and they can be automatically detected and “grouped” to be managed together via the PowerStore Manager. Dell prefers to refer to this grouping more like a federation than a cluster, but this should not put you off. Appliances are aware of each other and can be interconnected by means of ToR switches (only for control plane traffic).

Volumes can be provisioned where it is “best” to allocate them: AI will help with recommendations at provisioning time and at later stages when volumes can be re-shuffled and re-allocated with no downtime across appliances for capacity optimization or performance tuning. Dell’s own CloudIQ plays a role here as it crunches the real-time metrics gathered from your appliances and provides admins the necessary information to take fact-based action when needed.

What about data services? PowerStore delivers enterprise class file and block storage and finally proper, full support for VMware vVols that at last becomes a first-class citizen in Dell’s storage portfolio. More on that soon. Online Data Reduction is powered by Intel QuickAssist hardware acceleration and, with “always on” deduplication and compression, Dell “guarantees” a 4:1 ratio without compromising performance.

Out-of-the box integration with VMware vRO, Kubernetes CSI and Ansible also enables automated storage provisioning for DevOps-y workflows.

If you are following me, you might be able to see how this architecture – because of PowerStore’s form factor and its basic capabilities – complements well other HCI solutions and more conventional servers: just think about racks filled with 2U PowerStore units, VxRail nodes and Dell PowerEdge servers and about the possibilities brought by combining their respective strengths. In a moment it will be clear why PowerStore is also a great choice for Edge or ROBO deployments, but we need to say a few words about PowerStoreOS first.

PowerStoreOS: one OS for two deployment styles

PowerStoreOS’s strength is it being modular as it is container based. This makes it portable and non-disruptively upgradable. Why portable? Well, because there are two families of PowerStore appliances, T and X. Now this is where things take an unexpected turn…

In T-series appliances, PowerStoreOS is deployed directly upon the hardware and the end result is an “almost ordinary” array architecture with all the benefits described above, but in X-series models PowerStoreOS is deployed in a VM running on ESXi! Yes, X appliances nodes run ESXi 6.7 natively (7.0 coming soon) and the appliance itself behaves like a 2-node vSphere cluster! Half of the compute capacity of each node is reserved to the PowerStoreOS VM that serves the IOPS and presents the storage to internal and external workloads, while the remaining 50% compute capacity is reserved to local VMs that can consume the shared storage directly from the array! Typical vSphere HA and DRS/vMotion capabilities are of course available and what we have as a result is a 2U box that behaves simultaneously like a fully redundant storage array and a small-scale vSphere cluster. This capability, called AppsON, is as far as I know an industry unique characteristic and to be honest it is quite shocking.

Now, a recent PowerStoreOS 2.0 upgrade brought the possibility to create fully functional vSphere clusters of up to 8x nodes running on 4x appliances, further expanding the list of potential use cases. Registering the vCenter associated with these nodes into PowerStore Manager will allow admins to have deep visibility into the VMs in terms of storage allocation, consumption, performance etc. and of course CloudIQ can assist with AI-driven optimization. Joint VM and storage administration cannot be easier than this.

Something to consider is that customers cannot buy a T-series appliance and convert it to X at later stage: this is a decision that has to be taken at the very beginning, but nothing prevents to mix and match T and X appliances with different specs.

PowerStore X and AppsON: where do they shine?

AppsON can bring value in some specific use cases. One to begin with is for data-intensive workloads where applications that require low-latency access to huge volumes find the perfect platform to run upon in PowerStore X. Imagine storage intensive VMs where storage capacity and low-latency access are the priority vs brute computing capabilities: this is a perfect match for PowerStore X as it can complement VxRail quite well. Dell’s HCI platform cannot easily scale compute and storage capacity independently and PowerStore can be a better option than VxRail for these data hungry VMs. Now think about that rack filled with PowerStore X, VxRail and PowerEdge units and imagine how many more synergies and possibilities AppsON brings to that picture: VxRail can run more of well-balanced VMs while PowerStore X can accommodate those with special storage requirements and simultaneously provide data services to external workloads.

Another immediate use case is ROBO/Edge scenarios where a single X-series appliance can serve multiple purposes: be a mini vSphere cluster running VMs, serve block storage to external servers and act as a NAS. All in just 2Us. Kind of cool, isn’t it?

These are just a couple of examples but I am sure that creative architects can come up with more!

VMware integration: vVols at their best

Let’s talk a bit more in depth about VMware integration before closing this (sorry!) lengthy article. The main selling point to me is that PowerStore finally gives VMware vVols the attention this technology deserves. Competition from the likes of HPE and Pure Storage, who fully committed to vVols from day one, was leaving Dell EMC behind in terms of completeness of support for this storage consumption model: I am happy to say that this is not the case anymore. Actually, PowerStore comes with turnkey integration with vVols: the embedded VASA provider is automatically registered with vCenter as soon as this is linked to the PowerStore Manager. Creation of Protocol Endpoint and Storage Container / vVols DataStore is automatically taken care of for immediate consumption and all the PowerStore data services become instantly available thanks to the out-of-the-box SPMB – Storage Policy Based Management integration. The latest PowerStoreOS release allows to stretch the vVols Storage Container to up to 4x appliances (8x nodes). From a management perspective, the PowerStore Manager ensures end to end visibility for VMs and Virtual Volumes and comes with snapshot management capabilities. Of course, vVols can be consumed by VMs running locally, on VxRail nodes or on any vSphere cluster independently of the server vendor. This is nothing but great news for Dell customers who can finally consume vVols without compromises.

PowerStore takeaways

Dell Technologies’ PowerStore specific capabilities (small footprint, low entry price, scalability, ease of management, AI driven intelligence, future proof support model, AppsON etc.) make it an interesting solution for both new customers that are willing to start building their storage infrastructure for the ground up (Dell claims that a significative share of PowerStore customers are new ones), but also for old customers that already have other Dell server and storage products and that can benefit from the ease of integration across the portfolio.

What I particularly like is the containerized nature of PowerStore OS which makes it easy to upgrade it and to introduce new capabilities by just shipping them with a new software release. To name a few examples, NVMe fabric over FC, SCM metadata tiering, stretched vVols Storage Containers and a substantial performance boost all came for free with the latest OS one-click upgrade in June 2021… we can say that the old dreary days of Flare upgrades are gone for good!

To complement this, Dell offers a future proof sales approach enabling customers betting on PowerStore to receive easy and convenient hardware upgrades and capacity expansions if and when needed.

All the above and the great support for VMware vSphere (hands up for vVols!) make PowerStore a storage solution well worth considering.

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