Dell Technologies World 2018 – Dell EMC (H)CI Updates

Disclaimer: I recently attended Dell Technologies World 2018.  My flights, accommodation and conference pass were paid for by Dell Technologies via the Press, Analysts and Influencers program. There is no requirement for me to blog about any of the content presented and I am not compensated in any way for my time at the event.  Some materials presented were discussed under NDA and don’t form part of my blog posts, but could influence future discussions.

Announcement

Dell EMC today announced enhancements to their (hyper)converged infrastructure offerings: VxRail and VxRack SDDC.

VxRail

  • VMware Validated Designs for SDDC to plan, operate, & deploy on-prem cloud
  • Future-proof performance w/NVMe, 2x more memory (up to 3TB per node), 2x graphics acceleration, and 25Gbps networking support
  • New STIG Compliance Guide and automated scripts accelerate deployment of secure infrastructure

VxRack SDDC

  • Exclusive automation & serviceability extensions with VMware Cloud Foundation (VCF)
  • Now leverages more powerful 14th Gen PowerEdge 
  • End-to-end cloud infrastructure security

 

Gil Shneorson on HCI

During the week I also had the chance to speak with Gil Shneorson and I thought it would be worthwhile sharing some of his insights here.

What do you think about HCI in the context of an organisation’s journey to cloud. Is it a stop-gap? “HCI is simply a new way to consume infrastructure (compute and SDS) – and you get some stuff that wasn’t available before. Your environments are evergreen – you take less risk, you don’t have to plan ahead, don’t tend to buy too much or too little”.

Am I going to go traditional or HCI? “Most are going HCI. Where is the role of traditional storage? It’s become more specialised – bare metal, extreme performance, certain DR scenarios. HCI comes partially with everything – lots of storage, lots of CPU. Customers are using it in manufacturing, finance, health care, retail – all in production. There’s no more delineation. Economics are there. Picked up over 3000 customers in 9 quarters”.

Shneorson went on to say that HCI provides “[g]ood building blocks for cloud-like environments – IaaS. It’s the software on top, not the HCI itself. The world is dividing into specific stacks – VMware, Microsoft, Nutanix. Dell EMC are about VMware’s multi-cloud approach. If you do need on-premises, HCI is a good option, and won’t be going away. The Edge is growing like crazy too. Analytics, decision making. Not just point of sale for stores. You need a lot more just in time scale for storage, compute, network.

How about networking? “More is being done. Moving away form storage networks has been a challenge. Not just technically, but organisationally. Finding people who know a bit about everything isn’t easy. Sometimes they stick with the old because of the people. You need a lot of planning to put your IO on the customers’ network. Then you need to automate. We’re still trying to make HCI as robust as traditional architectures”.

And data protection? “Data protection still taking bit of a backseat”.

Are existing VCE customers were upset about some of the move away from Cisco? “Generally, if they were moving away from converged solutions, it was more because they’d gained more confidence in HCI, rather than the changing tech or relationships associated with Dell EMC’s CI offering”.

 

Thoughts

This weeks announcements around VxRail and VxRack SDDC weren’t earth shattering by any stretch, but the thing that sticks in my mind is that Dell EMC continue to iteratively improve the platform and are certainly focused on driving VxRail to be number one in the space. There’s a heck of a lot of competition out there from their good friends at Nutanix, so I’m curious to see how this plays out. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter what platform you use to deliver outcomes, they key is that you deliver those outcomes. In the market, it seems the focus is moving more towards how the applications can deliver value, rather than what infrastructure is hosting those applications. This is a great move, but just like serverless needs servers, you still need to think about where your value-adding applications are being hosted. Ideally, you want the data close to the processing, and, depending on the applications, your users need to be close to that data and processing too. Hyper-converged infrastructure can be a really nice solution to leverage when you want to move beyond the traditional storage / compute / network paradigm. You can start small and scale (to a point) as required. Dell EMC’s VxRail and VxRack story is getting better as time goes on.

Dell EMC VxRail 4.5 – A Few Notes

VxRail 4.5 was announced in May by Dell EMC and I’ve been a bit slow in going through my enablement on the platform. The key benefit (beyond some interesting hardware permutations that were announced), is support for VMware vSphere 6.5 U1 and vSAN 6.6. I thought I’d cover a few of the more interesting aspects of the VxRail platform and core VMware enhancements.

Note that VxRail 4.5 does not support Generation 1 hardware, but it does support G2 and 3 Quanta models, and G3 Dell PowerEdge appliances.

 

VxRail Enhancements

Multi-node Additions

Prior to version 4.5, adding an additional node to the existing cluster was a bit of a pain. Only one node could be added at a time and this could take some time when you had a lot of nodes to add. Now, however,

  • Multiple nodes (up to 6) can be added simultaneously.
  • Each node expansion is a separate process. If one fails, the remaining five will keep going.

There is now also a node removal procedure, used to decommission old generation VxRail products and migrate to new generation VxRail hardware. This is only supported for VxRail 4.0.301 and above and removal of only one node at a time is recommended.

 

Network Planning

Different VLANs are recommended for vSAN traffic and for management across multiple VxRail clusters.

 

VxRail network topologies use dual top-of-rack (ToR) switches to remove the switch as a single point of failure.

 

vSAN 6.6 Enhancements

Disk Format 5

As I mentioned earlier, VxRail 4.5 introduces support for vSAN 6.6 and disk format 5.

  • All nodes in the VxRail cluster must be running vSAN 6.6 due to the upgraded disk format.
  • The upgrade from disk format 3 to 5 is a metadata only conversion and data evacuation is not required. You need disk format 5 is required for datastore-level encryption (see below).
  • VxRail will automatically upgrade the disk format version to 5 when you upgrade to VxRail 4.5.

 

Unicast Support

Unicast is supported for vSAN communications starting with vSAN 6.6. The idea is to reduce network configuration complexity. There is apparently no performance impact associated with the use of Unicast. vSAN will switch to unicast mode once all hosts in the cluster have been upgraded to vSAN 6.6 and disk format 5. You won’t need to reconfigure the ToR switches to disable multicast features in vSAN.

 

vSAN Data-at-Rest Encryption

vSAN Data-at-Rest Encryption (D@RE) is enabled at cluster level, supporting hybrid, all-flash, and stretched clusters. Note that it requires an external vCenter and does not support embedded vCenter. It

  • Works with all vSAN features, including deduplication and compression.
  • Integrates with all KMIP-compliant key management technologies, including SafeNet, HyTrust, Thales, Vormetric, etc.

When enabling encryption, vSAN performs a rolling reformat of every disk group in the cluster. As such, it is recommended to enable encryption on the vSAN datastore after the initial VxRail deployment. Whilst it’s a matter of ticking a checkbox, it can take a lot of time to complete depending on how much data needs to be migrated about the place.

 

Other Reading

You can read more about vSAN D@RE here. Chad delivered a very useful overview of the VxRail and VxRack updates announced at Dell EMC World 2017 that you can read here.

EMC Announces VxRail

Yes, yes, I know it was a little while ago now. I’ve been occupied by other things and wanted to let the dust settle on the announcement before I covered it off here. And it was really a VCE announcement. But anyway. I’ve been doing work internally around all things hyperconverged and, as I work for a big EMC partner, people have been asking me about VxRail. So I thought I’d cover some of the more interesting bits.

So, let’s start with the reasonably useful summary links:

  • The VxRail datasheet (PDF) is here;
  • The VCE landing page for VxRail is here;
  • Chad’s take (worth the read!) can be found here; and
  • Simon from El Reg did a write-up here.

 

So what is it?

Well it’s a re-envisioning of VMware’s EVO:RAIL hyperconverged infrastructure in a way. But it’s a bit better than that, a bit more flexible, and potentially more cost effective. Here’s a box shot, because it’s what you want to see.

VxRail_002

Basically it’s a 2RU appliance housing 4 nodes. You can scale these nodes out in increments as required. There’s a range of hybrid configurations available.

VxRail_006

As well as some all flash versions.

VxRail_007

By default the initial configuration must be fully populated with 4 nodes, with the ability to scale up to 64 nodes (with qualification from VCE). Here are a few other notes on clusters:

  • You can’t mix All Flash and Hybrid nodes in the same cluster (this messes up performance);
  • All nodes within the cluster must have the same license type (Full License or BYO/ELA); and
  • First generation VSPEX BLUE appliances can be used in the same cluster with second generation appliances but EVC must be set to align with the G1 appliances for the whole cluster.

 

On VMware Virtual SAN

I haven’t used VSAN/Virtual SAN enough in production to have really firm opinions on it, but I’ve always enjoyed tracking its progress in the marketplace. VMware claim that the use of Virtual SAN over other approaches has the following advantages:

  • No need to install Virtual Storage Appliances (VSA);
  • CPU utilization <10%;
  • No reserved memory required;
  • Provides the shortest path for I/O; and
  • Seamlessly handles VM migrations.

If that sounds a bit like some marketing stuff, it sort of is. But that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily wrong either. VMware state that the placement of Virtual SAN directly in the hypervisor kernel allows it to “be fast, highly efficient, and be able to scale with flash and modern CPU architectures”.

While I can’t comment on this one way or another, I’d like to point out that this appliance is really a VMware play. The focus here is on the benefit of using an established hypervisor (vSphere), and established management solution (vCenter) and a (soon-to-be) established software defined storage solution (Virtual SAN). If you’re looking for the flexibility of multiple hypervisors or incorporating other storage solutions this really isn’t for you.

 

Further Reading and Final Thoughts

Enrico has a good write-up on El Reg about Virtual SAN 6.2 that I think is worth a look. You might also be keen to try something that’s NSX-ready. This is as close as you’ll get to that (although I can’t comment on the reality of one of those configurations). You’ve probably noticed there have been a tonne of pissing matches on the Twitters recently between VMware and Nutanix about their HCI offerings and the relative merits (or lack thereof) of their respective architectures. I’m not telling you to go one way or another. The HCI market is reasonably young, and I think there’s still plenty of change to come before the market has determined whether this really is the future of data centre infrastructure. In the meantime though, if you’re already slow-dancing with EMC or VCE and get all fluttery when people mention VMware, then the VxRail is worth a look if you’re HCI-curious but looking to stay with your current partner. It may not be for the adventurous amongst you, but you already know where to get your kicks. In any case, have a look at the datasheet and talk to your local EMC and VCE folk to see if this is the right choice for you.