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EMC and Dell unveil SMB SAN

Beth Pariseau

EMC Corp. and Dell Inc. are taking another crack at luring small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) into the world of networked storage by rolling out a SAS/SATA disk array to replace the Clariion AX150.

EMC calls the new system the AX4, and Dell brands it the AX4-5. The new product scales higher than the AX150, which supported a maximum of 6 TB and 10 hosts. The AX4 will scale from 3 TB to 45 TB with 750 GB SATA disk drives at its first release this month and to 60 TB when 1 TB SATA disk drives are qualified in March. Like the AX150, the AX4 is based on the same hardware components as the midrange Clariion disk array EMC and Dell sell. But the latest AX system includes Clariion's active-active controllers for failover. The AX4 will also have more software bundled into it than the AX150.

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The new array is available in entry-level and advanced configurations, both of which support iSCSI and Fibre Channel interfaces. The entry-level configuration holds 3 TB capacity and supports up to 10 hosts with Navisphere Express and other management software. This scaled-down version of Clariion's Navisphere software offers a provisioning wizard, expandable volumes with Clariion MetaLUNs and nondisruptive data migration with virtual LUN.

The advanced configuration scales to 64 physical or virtual hosts and supports local clones and remote replication with extra software options. When VMware Inc.'s Site Recovery Manager becomes available later this quarter, the AX4 will integrate with it. EMC is only providing entry pricing on the basic configuration, which has a starting list price of $8,599, including 3 TB of storage. Dell's lowest-end configuration costs $13,858 for 3 TB of SATA and a three-year Gold (24/7 on-site support) warranty.

SMB storage systems increasingly overlap

Although storage vendors haven't had much success selling to SMBs, the AX4 has plenty of competition from EMC's traditional SAN competitors. The Hewlett-Packard (HP) All-in-One, Network Appliance Inc. (NetApp) StoreVault, Hitachi Data Systems' (HDS) Simple Modular Storage 100 and even Dell's PowerVault MD3000i are all aimed at SMBs and all have a lower starting price than the new AX.

EMC is bundling in software features that add flexibility to volume expansion and data migration within the enclosure, similar to the way existing midrange iSCSI SANs, such as LeftHand Networks Inc.'s SANiQ and EqualLogic Inc.'s PS Series already operate. Adding another wrinkle to the mix, Dell acquired EqualLogic for $1.4 billion in November.

"[The AX4-5] is a more competitive offering than the AX150 was, but it does create a positioning problem with EqualLogic," said Taneja Group senior analyst Rich Bordeau. "There's overlap here with EMC's CX3-10 model, as well."

According to EMC senior director of product marketing Barry Ader, the AX4 can be differentiated from EqualLogic's midrange iSCSI SANs because it supports Fibre Channel and SAS/SATA intermix in the same enclosure. EqualLogic's PS Series systems use modular "building block" arrays that can be either SAS or SATA, but not both.

The EMC product also lets users pick and choose from software options rather than getting them bundled in with every array, as they do in some cases, unhappily, with EqualLogic. But although the AX4 supports Fibre Channel and iSCSI, PowerVault MD3000i is also iSCSI-only, Ader admits, "we expect most customers at this point in the market to go for iSCSI, if they don't already have Fibre Channel in place."

Dell's not willing to talk yet about why it needs the AX4-5 and EqualLogic's products in its portfolio. Dell storage marketing group product manager Eric Cannell said the AX4-5 is a higher-end system than the MD3000i, but he declined comment when asked how the product will be positioned against EqualLogic's. "We're not in a position to talk about that until the [EqualLogic] acquisition closes," he said.

Users are left to sort out this ever-growing list of overlapping products at the low end. "There isn't one rule of thumb, and it may just depend on which vendor you feel more comfortable buying from," Bordeau said. The good news is that increased competition in this space means the big vendors are finally willing to give low-end products some teeth with more bundled-in features -- and might be more negotiable on price.