Dell EMC World 2017: HCI, startup investments, Nautilus

This year's Dell EMC World served as a coming-out party for Dell Technologies Capital, 'Project Nautilus' and IoT storage, and as a showcase for current products.

LAS VEGAS -- Notes from Dell EMC World 2017:

The head of Rent-A-Center's data center team gave an in-depth presentation about his company embracing hyper-convergence. Mike Conroy, Rent-A-Center's senior director of technical operations, explained why he purchased Dell EMC VxRail appliances, his selection process, implementation challenges Rent-A-Center faced and where hyper-converged infrastructure works best.

Why hyper-convergence: Rent-A-Center, which grew to a $3 billion annual revenue company largely through acquisition, had a collection of technologies throughout its Plano, Texas, data center. That included "various switches, clashing servers and disparate storage," according to Conroy. "We run every operating system that's been out there probably since 1989," he said.

Conroy said upgrades were a major challenge. Rent-A-Center suffered from administrative overhead, performance problems, and "our staff was spending an inordinate amount of time just keeping the lights on," doing things like patching servers and making sure its storage was compatible with everything else, Conroy said.

Conroy said he wanted to standardize on one set of technology. He began with an overhaul of the organization's Citrix-based virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

Why Dell EMC VxRail: Conroy said he spent more than a year researching hyper-converged options, then brought in VxRail and hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) systems from Nutanix and SimplilVity for testing. He said there was little difference in performance, as all three tested well. He said there wasn't much difference in pricing, either, with Nutanix on the high side and Simplivity the lowest. The decision came down to integration. Rent-A-Center moved to a VMware Horizon View for VDI, and VxRail had the best overall integration between VMware and its hardware and applications.

"When I upgrade now, there's one button to push, and everything happens," he said.

At the time, Dell and EMC had not yet completed their merger, and SimpliVity had not yet been acquired by Hewlett Packard Enterprise. "We dodged that bullet," Conroy said of the HPE-SimpliVity buy.

Conroy said Rent-A-Center bought two VxRail 280F all-flash G Series appliances, "because why would you not buy all-flash today?" Each chassis has four nodes.

HCI benefits: Conley said performance complaints about his company's VDI from users dropped from 30 calls a week to zero since switching to hyper-converged. He went from two full-time IT people on the old system to half a full-time admin position on the VxRail, and he now supports 25,000 users with a system that takes up three-quarters of a rack. "I took 100 pounds of cabling out of the data center ... It's so much cleaner now," Conley said.

The VDI system now gets upgraded and patched quickly, without users even knowing, and HCI also removed hidden costs in pricing.

"CFOs really like predictable spending," Conley said. He said going back to the CFO for more money after a fairly new storage system hits capacity "is a hard conversation to have."

CFOs really like predictable spending.
Mike Conroysenior director of technical operations, Rent-A-Center

He said if the current Nutanix-based Dell EMC XC Series were available to him a year ago, it might have "changed the conversation," but he probably would have picked VxRail anyway for its integration with VMware vSAN HCI software.

Biggest challenge: EMC sent three implementation teams before getting the VxRail set up. The first team's engineer needed to open a WebEx session with a supervisor just to figure out how to log on and was quickly dismissed. The second team had VxRail experience, but operated from a closely followed script that couldn't handle all of Rent-A-Center's legacy technologies during setup. The third engineer zipped through the set up in less than four hours.

Lesson: "Make sure you get a good engineer upfront," Conley said.

Expansion plans: Rent-A-Center has expanded to four appliances and eight nodes, and Conley said he expects to go to 32 nodes in the near future. As his NetApp FlexPod converged infrastructure storage systems come off maintenance, he will move other applications to VxRail.

Still, he said hyper-convergence isn't right for all applications. He doesn't recommend using it for databases that require inconsistent and high disk I/O. "I wouldn't put [Microsoft] Exchange on it," he said. "If you have a high-volume SQL database, it's probably not a good fit."

He said the HCI appliances he tested could handle those types of applications alone, but those databases would take resources from other applications in the same cluster.

Dell opens the books on venture investments

Dell Technologies Capital (DTC) was formally introduced at Dell EMC World 2017, although the group is a combination of the Dell and EMC investment arms that have been around for years. Between the Dell and EMC groups, DTC has invested in approximately 80 startups and invests about $100 million a year.

Scott Darling, president of Dell Technologies Capital, said DTC's strategy is to invest in companies in early rounds and become technology partners with those startups. This can keep Dell ahead of the curve on new technologies, including those it does not develop internally, he said.

"It's not necessarily because we're going to acquire these companies," Darling said. "If you invest early, you drive market change instead of having market change drive you. It's an imperative today to do this."

Darling said close to 30 DTC investments have made "exits," which is investor-speak for becoming a public company or getting acquired. Early investors include Dell hyper-converged OEM partner Nutanix -- now a public company -- and all-flash pioneer XtremIO, which EMC acquired.

By coming out of stealth this week, DTC disclosed its portfolio of investments. On the storage side, the list includes Diablo Technologies, Druva, Elastifile, Formation Data Systems, Iguazio, Nasuni, Nexenta and Primary Data. That list reflects Dell EMC's focus on cloud -- Elastifile, Iguazio and Nasuni; software-defined -- Formation, Nexenta and Primary Data; and flash and memory storage -- Diablo.

Project Nautilus comes up for air at Dell EMC World 2017

Dell EMC unveiled Project Nautilus analytics software at Dell EMC World 2017. Nautilus is the code name for the still-in-development open source application the vendor describes as a "software-defined solution for storing and analyzing high volumes of streaming IoT [internet of things] data, enabling businesses to make real-time decisions."

Manuvir Das, general manager of Dell EMC's unstructured data group, said Nautilus software will store and analyze real-time stream data off a variety of devices. Nautilus will use Isilon scale-out NAS and Elastic Cloud Storage (ECS) object storage as repositories. "This will turbocharge Isilon and ECS," Das said.

Cloud-to-cloud still in Dell EMC's plans

Dell EMC is not getting out of the cloud-to-cloud backup business, despite selling off Spanning Cloud Apps last month. Matt Waxman, vice president of product management for Dell EMC's data protection group, said the vendor will continue to sell Spanning software and support its approximately 7,000 customers. But he said cloud-to-cloud backup will show up in other Dell EMC backup products.

"We will continue cloud-to-cloud backup, not just in terms of Spanning, but in other thing that we do," Waxman said.

Next Steps

Dell EMC moves products into all-flash world

New vendor backup strategy from Dell EMC

Lots of storage needed for coming IoT data flood

Dig Deeper on Storage vendors

Disaster Recovery
Data Backup
Data Center
and ESG