HPE Nimble vs. Dell Compellent

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    In the world of modern business, you can never really have too much storage. The data revolution and customer expectations for online channels of communications are fueling an IT scramble in every industry. Even small businesses are required to build storage arrays on a scale that was once the sole responsibility of enterprise and IT-specific businesses. Every business has gone ‘digital’, infrastructure is needed to make that happen.

    The problem with IT is that there are too many choices. Even if just looking at the major vendors, each offers more options than most people have the time to understand. Here, we will give you a crash course in what the current storage market has to offer by comparing two of the major contenders — HPE Nimble vs. Dell Compellent.

    Nimble and Compellent: Conglomerate SAN Specialists

    Nimble and Compellent both began life as independent upstarts that changed aspects of enterprise storage and went on to be acquired by giants in the industry. Compellent became part of Dell in 2011 and HPE purchased Nimble in 2016. Their integration into two of the largest suppliers of enterprise storage solutions spurred consternation from loyal users that fundamental changes would occur to the products or services. Realistically, access to more resources and native integration with a wider array of IT solutions has only improved their capabilities.

    Nimble and Dell Compellent are both SAN (Storage Area Network) specialists. SAN is one of the two main configurations for storage arrays — the other being NAS (Network Attached Storage).

    SAN uses block-level storage while NAS uses file-level storage. In file-level storage, data is stored and presented in the same format. In block-level storage, data is stored in LUNs (Logical Unit Numbers) that are controlled as individual virtual drives. Compared to file-level storage, this allows for more efficient and secure control, provisioning and transfer of data. The cost is the need to use an interfacing program to access the data. But, this is not a large challenge. Both Windows and Linux now deliver file servers as standard. Although NAS is simpler, SAN is the more powerful and flexible solution.  

    Nimble arrays can only be configured as SAN. Dell Compellent is primarily SAN hardware. It is supported by the Dell Compellent FS line of NAS solutions. But, these are no longer being actively developed and Compellent SC SAN seems to be transitioning from the dominant piece of Compellent hardware to the only one. But, Compellent SAN arrays remain capable of easy integration with other Dell NAS products, a capability Nimble hardware also possesses with regards to HPE solutions.  

    Nimble sits in a relatively unique niche in the HPE lineup. Although there is overlap between the capabilities of Dell Compellent and Dell EMC Unity, Dell Technologies have continued to support and innovate both Dell SAN products, never wavering in their commitment to keep Compellent in the market. They are now supporting Compellent with a new software management system and covering it in their customer loyalty guarantees.*

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    Dell Compellent: The Standard SAN Solution

    SAN has always been the priority of Compellent. In many ways, Dell Compellent represents the ‘standard’ SAN within the market. It has few bells and whistles, but is affordable, functional and easy to use — delivering a solution that works on a budget and makes sense for even the smallest businesses. Considering SAN is the premium ‘enterprise’ solution, this is a powerful offering.

    Compellent is a long time leader in ‘tiered’ storage architecture, using virtualisation technology and the tracking of metadata to enable the automatic transfer of data blocks between different types of drives and RAID groups within your system. Older data ends up on slower HDD and new writes go to the faster available drives. This is now a relatively common feature in storage systems, but Compellent still offers a highly competitive solution.  

    Dell Compellent arrays come in hybrid and all-flash variants. These are both quality pieces of hardware. Integration into the wider Dell line-up brought updated software support, most recently updated in July 2018 with the release of the SC Operating System 7.3. — Unisphere for Compellent.* Unisphere is a web-based software management system that comes from the Dell EMC Unity range.  

    The new release brings a 2x increase in maximum IOPS for current arrays and 33% to 54% performance increases for VDI and SQL OLTP applications. It delivers compression, deduplication, thin provisioning and troubleshooting capabilities for all Dell products within your storage system. It possesses a quality and intuitive GUI interface and easily accessed system visibility. Effectively, Unisphere is Dell’s answer to the software-defined storage trends in the market — designed to make the management of your storage ecosystem easy and effective. Broadly speaking, it delivers on that goal. Unisphere software comes standard with Dell Compellent hardware and was a free upgrade for existing customers.

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    In addition to Unisphere, Dell delivers native support for REST APIs.* These are a popular tool in data centres used to standardise the management of storage components from multiple vendors — depending on HTTP commands such as GET, POST and DELETE. This can be a great advantage if you already use this system. But, it isn’t anything new and can be unwieldy for inexperienced users. REST APIs do not offer a native GUI interface, and the ability to deliver the visibility and maintenance capabilities that come standard with a system like Unisphere are dependent on the skill of the operator.     

    HPE Nimble: Maximising and Automating Hybrid Storage

    Nimble hardware is powerful and versatile. According to internal Dell metrics, all-flash Compellent Arrays outperform their all-flash Nimble counterparts.* But, this broadly misses the selling point of Nimble. Unlike Compellent, Nimble is not a ‘normal’ SAN vendor. What makes Nimble special is their cloud-based analytics platform ‘InfoSight’ and Journal File System based operating system CASL (Cache Accelerated Sequential Layout). This allows for the supercharging of cheaper hybrid storage and the reduction of maintenance costs by automating tasks using machine learning algorithms and predictive analytics.

    Infosight collects millions of points of data a minute to predict and designate usage of SSD, HDD and cloud components, taking tiered storage capabilities to another level. It also uses this information to get ahead of maintenance problems and identify issues before they manifest. Nimble claims this system will make ‘86% of your problems disappear’ — optimising storage, management and support. InfoSight is able to take actions independently, only alerting operators of serious problems. This is all in addition to delivering top-of-the-line provisioning, manual troubleshooting and storage control interface capabilities.

    CASL takes Nimble performance even further. What could be compared to tiered storage, CASL effectively tiers all data as it is being written, moving active applications to faster flash while they are being used. Metadata is stored on a ‘transcription log’ comprised of high-speed local flash (or NVRAM) before being transferred to a final destination on the main system. The value of this technology is reduced if you access programs in a sequential order or do not require repeated access to the same data. But, this dramatically accelerates the overall capability of your hardware and maximises the ability for cheaper hybrid hardware to compete in an enterprise storage environment increasingly demanding the power of flash. 

    Nimble vs. Dell Compellent: Differences In Scaling and Virtualisation

    Nimble can scale in really every direction and every way, while Dell Compellent is effectively ‘scale-up’ architecture. Scale-up architecture is the traditional scaling solution in which controllers (servers) are purchased and additional storage drives can be added until the capacity of that controller is reached. This delivers a cost-effective way to expand capacity for that one controller but requires over-provisioning every time another server is needed. This also creates data silos within your ecosystem every time a new server is added.

    The scale-out architecture uses standard servers and storage to create nodes that leverage object storage protocols to combine ‘nodes’ into ‘clusters’. This allows for the creation of a single storage pool that is presented to the network as a unified system. For very small systems, this approach can introduce complications that are not necessary. But, it delivers a much more flexible and easy to manage solution as a system grows.    

    Compellent can deliver scale-out capabilities, but only by relying on replication and virtualisation offered by Dell EMC’s Live Volumes.* More traditional scale-out cluster solutions are really only on offer using Dell EMC hardware like Isilon arrays. Nimble, however, can scale-up, scale-out or ‘scale-deep’. Deep scaling is a somewhat redundant term. But, the point is that using Nimble arrays you can scale system performance and system capacity independently, or scale both at the same time — delivering flexibility in growth, however it is needed.

    Compellent can also achieve scale-out type capabilities by linking with VMware virtualised solutions or the cloud. Unisphere offers native support for VMware, support for on-ramping into a number of cloud solutions, and a central point of control for a hybrid environment. Not every solution on the market delivers these options. Regardless of scaling, this is an important bonus.

    Nimble, however, offers the same things. By bringing VMware and cloud solutions into your Nimble environment, you also get all of the analytics and predictive maintenance capabilities offered by InfoSight. Nimble probably offers the best VMware integrations currently on the market and HPE cloud solutions are competitive.     

    Nimble vs. Dell Compellent: Strong Hardware vs. A Complete Package

    Nimble is really trying to sell you a complete, out-of-the-box storage solution. This is further seen in the fact that their software comes with all licencing fees included. Everything Nimble and InfoSight has to offer comes standard with any purchase. That means a powerful, dynamic and predictive storage environment that automates maintenance, delivers complete system visibility and accelerates the power of hybrid arrays with advanced ‘tiering’ capabilities.

    Dell Compellent delivers a more standard and customisable solution that relies on the traditional power and reliability of its hardware. When used for processes best suited for CASL, Nimble hybrid arrays can match the power of any all-flash array on the market — Dell Compellent included. If coupled with local NVRAM servers, Nimble all-flash or hybrid arrays have the potential to reach even higher.

    But, if what you want is a quality all-flash piece of hardware that will perform no matter how it is being used and with any storage control system, Dell Compellent has Nimble beat. This is particularly true if you are looking to integrate that hardware into a REST API controlled storage environment. The native support for REST APIs offered by Dell and other Dell SAN products makes all of their hardware a top choice for those ecosystems.

    Dell Compellent also offers you ‘bare bones’ options. If you don’t want all of the fancy machine learning, predictive analytics, cache accelerate write procedures and other licences, these aren’t things you can opt out of when purchasing Nimble. This makes it hard to build a really basic solution on a tight budget, and cost ineffective to integrate Nimble hardware into an ecosystem with software controls that you have spent a lot of time building yourself.

    When you buy Nimble, you get what you get. That offering is fantastic. But, there aren’t really options. You have to decide for yourself if those features are worth the cost. Although, Nimble arrays are very affordable for what you get. If you are looking to build a hybrid storage array from scratch that will stand up to a more expensive all-flash system, Nimble offers you a solution that is basically unmatched anywhere else in the market.


    * Dell EMC Pushing Ahead With Overlapping Midrange Storage Lines, Offers Capacity Guarantee
    *Boost Performance and Capacity of SC Storage with Free OS Upgrade
    *Dell EMC Unity: Unisphere Overview
    *Compare Dell EMC SC Series vs. HPE Nimble
    * Thoughts On A Dell Acquisition Of Compellent

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    Troy Platts

    Troy has spent over 20 years helping organisations solve their data, storage and compute conundrums. He is a regular speaker at vendor events and spends any free time he has keeping abreast of advances in data platform technologies. He also makes a mean curry.

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