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Automation company swaps Isilon for software-defined storage

The Swedish automation company Hexagon needed super scale and performance for its files. The new SDS upgrade speeds up customer response times.

As a global manufacturer of digital reality and autonomous applications, Hexagon generates enormous amounts of unstructured data as it builds digital twins for automation and sustainability modeling.

As an early customer of Isilon Systems, Hexagon Geosystems, an offshoot of the larger, Sweden-based Hexagon AB, used an Isilon scale-out NAS that dated back to 2006 for its massive storage needs. Once EMC acquired Isilon technology in 2010, the IT pros at Hexagon worried because they noticed there was diminished customer service offered for the legacy product line.

"We felt that we had a really good relationship with the management at Isilon Systems, and that just wasn't there with EMC and later Dell EMC," said John Welter, division president of geospatial content solutions at Hexagon Geosystems. With the aging Isilon and the lack of strong customer support, Hexagon decided it was time to shop for something new.

We felt that we had a really good relationship with the management at Isilon Systems, and that just wasn't there with EMC.
John WelterDivision president of geospatial content solutions, Hexagon Geosystems

Hexagon was founded in 1992 and is a sum of more than 170 companies acquired over 20 years that employ more than 21,000 people. Hexagon uses sensors to create digital twins of locations, from mines to large cities -- to even a digital twin of Earth. These digital twins are used to test automation and sustainability models, according to the company.

Hexagon also makes turbine wheels used by commercial aircraft and GPS receiver technology that powers map programs such as Apple Maps and Google Maps. It also has data processing systems to host the distribution of data it collects.

The search for scale

To process data pools to create digital twins or manufacture turbine wheels, the company needs massive scale-out file systems like the Isilon storage system. It considered other NAS options over time as it acquired new storage technology, but none panned out as a replacement for Isilon.

"Some products worked OK for certain applications," Welter said. "But they lacked scale [we] needed or hit a performance bottleneck as they scaled."

Hexagon tested the NetApp OnTap cluster mode, he said, along with products made by BlueArc, DDN, HPE 3PAR and Dell EMC Compellent. All had scaling or performance shortcomings -- or sometimes both. Hexagon eventually discovered Qumulo in 2018, an early-stage company launched in 2012 by former Isilon employees.

In 2015, Qumulo released its data aware storage system, a software-defined file system that works on qualified hardware and with the hyperscale companies. Qumulo works with most hardware, with recent partnerships disclosed with Supermicro and an expanded partnership with HPE, and now compatible with the Apollo 4200 Gen10 Plus servers.

Qumulo wants to be viewed as more than an Isilon replacement, observed Scott Sinclair, an analyst at TechTarget's Enterprise Strategy Group. Sinclair said there are many similarities, but differences as well.

"Qumulo has a slick UI that enables an easy way to figure out which data sets and volumes were accessed by who," he said. "This allows users to see what was driving performance and the ability to dive deeper into those things."

Not only does it have a few more features, but the fact that it's a software system makes it more flexible and economical than a file system tied to hardware, Sinclair said.

Example of the Qumulo GUI.
Hexagon Geosystems replaced an aging Isilon with Qumulo.

Setting up and taking off

Hexagon scrutinized the Qumulo software and made a conditional purchase order. The company started with a small Qumulo installation that ran production workloads for 60 days. Gradually, it built out its cluster.

Initially, Hexagon used the hardware Qumulo bundled through a partnership with Arrow Electronics, which simplified the setup. Since the equipment was new to Hexagon, Qumulo sent a field engineer to help with the initial launch and train the IT team. Qumulo also showed Hexagon's IT team how to run additional installations as it expanded the software across the division.

Since there are so many Hexagon divisions through acquisition, each with its own hardware, the Qumulo software must work with a diverse installed base, Welter said. All divisions will now share the Qumulo infrastructure.

"Some acquisitions may be entrenched on HPE gear," he said. "They can keep those HPE servers they love and understand the tools, and they can run the Qumulo software stack."

The ability to scale Qumulo on demand is key, particularly when Hexagon Geosystems lands a large contract and needs that elasticity to add storage without overprovisioning, Welter added.

Slow, slightly bumpy migration

Hexagon Geosystems migrated away from Isilon with care. The last Isilon cluster coexisted with Qumulo for a year, as Hexagon worked out any residual bugs, Welter said.

Hexagon initially wanted Qumulo to expand its clusters faster than it was able to do. But Welter said the vendor addressed the limitation in a subsequent firmware update.

Hexagon has since requested that Qumulo improve its hybrid cloud capabilities. Qumulo is a scale-out file system, which means that when Hexagon needs to grow, it must add compute, storage and networking each time. On an average day, it's all good, but sometimes an application needs to burst.

"We wanted the ability to surge our processing capacity to AWS to make use of its Elastic Compute [EC2] resources," Welter said.

Welter believes Qumulo will resolve the limitation soon. For daily operations, even on something as high-performance as Hexagon's HPC cluster, Qumulo does fulfill demand.

Hexagon will continue to grow and make acquisitions. Its use of Qumulo for storage means it can move the software onto the newly acquired equipment, keeping familiar infrastructure throughout.

Adam Armstrong is a TechTarget Editorial news writer covering file and block storage hardware and private clouds. He previously worked at

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