Compellent “future proof?” Not so much.

So, I’ve written about Compellent a few times from a price perspective, mostly on the disk side. I was recently contacted by our vendor with quotes for two new Compellent controllers. “What’s this all about?” I asked. “Why don’t we have a call with Compellent to discuss?” he replied. I rolled my eyes a little but figured it was worth hearing them out, since our Compellent SAN is at the heart of our infrastructure.

We currently have two controllers setup in failover mode. The first was bought in 2008 and the other in 2010 to add redundancy. Earlier this year we upgraded to the latest software version in preparation for moving our production DB onto the SAN, to allow us a nice window before we had to perform another upgrade (which would now risk DB downtime… I like failover but I don’t trust it enough to have a DB up during a failover), so I was kind of skeptical about any sort of upgrade to begin with.

On the call, the Compellent reps explained that they’ve dropped Fibre Channel connectivity between the controller and the disk enclosure, and the purpose of the upgrade is to give us SAS. In addition, they no longer sell SATA (!). I asked why we couldn’t simply add SAS cards to our existing controllers and was told that our current controllers are PCI-X, so can only support up to 3Gb/s SAS, while the new controllers have PCI-e and support 6Gb/s. And they want to ensure that we have the best possible performance. Pretty sure someone said the new controllers “have the future built in” to them.

One of the features we really liked about Compellent from the beginning was the fact that it was basically a software solution on top of commodity hardware. They stressed this point repeatedly. “When new technology comes out, we can just add a new card into your existing controller.” I think the example at the time was 10-gig Ethernet, but it seems like the same logic would apply to SAS. I understand that PCI-X doesn’t support 6Gb/s SAS, but it’s a tough pill to swallow that if we want to expand our SAN at all now, on top of whatever the actual expansion costs, we’re going to need to plunk down some serious money to upgrade the controllers, which really seems like a net-zero for us. We’re not going to ditch our existing FC enclosures so we’re going to be limited to 4Gb/s anyway. If they’re only selling SAS, well, that sucks for us, but ok. But why can’t we just throw a $500 PCI-X 3Gb/s card in to expand? So we’re not running at peak performance. I doubt that would be our performance bottleneck anyway. Plus, swapping out controllers is a huge operation for us.

I know at some point we’re going to have to bite the bullet and do this upgrade, but it just irks me. On the bright side, I guess, we don’t have to do a “forklift upgrade,” and the disks/enclosures will all still work. But we have a long way to grow before we need to expand, so fortunately I can put this off for a while.

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21 Replies to “Compellent “future proof?” Not so much.”

  1. Full disclosure – I work for Dell Compellent. I manage the Compellent product marketing team. There are two macro level transitions here – the industry wide transition away from PCI-X to PCI-e and the transition from SATA to SAS.

    We do offer a variety of ways for our customers to avoid forklift upgrades as much as possible. In the case of SATA technology, the industry has shifted away from SATA to SAS. This isn’t a Compellent decision, but across the entire drive industry. Compellent delayed the end of life long past when drive shipments ended. We still provide Copilot support for SATA, although the drives and enclosures are no longer available for upgrades or new orders.

    For many of our customers, they can use a PCI-e SAS card in their existing controller and leverage this new drive technology and avoid a forklift upgrade that some vendors require. Unfortunately our older controllers only have PCI-X interfaces, and PCI-X SAS interface cards are not available from our vendors as part of the industry transition away from PCI-X.

    A key Compellent advantage is that by moving to the latest controller will allow use of all your existing Fibre channel enclosures and drives along with SAS, something that most competitors do not support.

    I’d welcome the opportunity to discuss this further offline from the blog. You can reach me at bob_fine@dell.com

  2. Wow, didn’t expect a response. Am I on your watchlist? 🙂

    I guess part of my problem again stems from not being used to how “enterprise” products are priced. In the past I’ve been shocked at the “enterprise” cost of SATA drives, up to 10x retail, with the stated reason being that they’re tested, etc, and I just have a hard time swallowing that. Everybody I’ve spoken with says “that’s just how enterprise storage works” and apparently Compellent is better than most, so I should be happy about that. But if the value proposition is “leveraging commodity hardware” then I assumed that implied commodity hardware pricing. I didn’t expect the kind of markup we see, which seems to negate a lot of the the pricing benefit of commodity hardware, at least on our end. PCIe vs PCIX seems to be a similar situation since there are PCIx SAS cards but they aren’t supported.

    Additionally, nobody ever warned us that we wouldn’t be able to purchase SATA any more, even when we expanded our system with another 16 SATA drives in August of last year. The first we heard about SATA being discontinued was on the sales call this week. That was kind of a shock, especially since I think they said the EOL for SATA was in April 2011, so I assume it must have at least been discussed internally around August. I guess “the industry” is moving away from SATA to SAS, and I’m sure there are plenty of benefits in the move, but as an outsider looking in I don’t see SATA going anywhere. I mean, laptops and desktops are still going to have SATA drives for at least several more years, so they do exist. I am aware of the supply problems in Thailand, but that really just seems like a convenient excuse to me. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why Compellent stopped selling SATA, but I have a hard time believing that “we can’t get them” is one of them. And like I said, even if the “industry” is moving to SAS, if the value proposition was commodity off-the-shelf hardware, that doesn’t seem to make sense.

    I know I’m out of my element here, and I was really just ranting (I thought to the ether). Since Compellent is the only SAN I’ve ever worked with, I’m sure I don’t know how good I’ve got it – I’ve heard some horror stories. But I mean, I still have a hard time accepting that we need to buy our disks from Compellent when we could just order them from Newegg. Maybe I’m just not an enterprisey guy. But like I’ve said before, I actually love the product. It’s been fantastic. But it’s hard for me to swallow the notion that we can’t just buy another Xyratex enclosure and throw some Seagate drives in it and add it to our existing system, since that was essentially part of the original sales pitch.

    As I said, I’m sure we’ll eventually end up doing the controller upgrade (since we really have no choice), but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

    1. Evan, No watch list here :). Also, per the full disclosure statement, I ran the product marketing team at Compellent which owns the product, from top to bottom. Much more product than outbound marketing.

      There are a variety of end of life topics as part of your latest post. Our supplier of disk enclosures, Xyratex, issued an end of life for the parts many, many months ago. We ordered extra to extend supply. There are truly no more enclosures available. I don’t where the communication broke down that you only recently received this information.

      As another checkpoint, the other major suppliers in the midrange enterprise market (NTAP FAS3000 and EMC VNX) have also moved away from SATA. It’s not a Dell Compellent move, rather a complete industry shift in the enterprise market.

      Any chance we could schedule a call to discuss in more depth? I can be reached at bob_fine@dell.com.

  3. Welcome to reality Evan, and reality is you might end up on a watch list . I did … See I ran into the same problem and voiced concerns … But got the hey no fork lift here answer… We will let you keep you software license.

    And don’t count on saving enclosures … I was forced into a full fork lift which lead me to another company.

    And think of it this way … Do you want to stay with a company / product that drops the bomb on you that you got. Like no longer selling or supporting product .

    I really like compellent before the buy out.
    And I am serious on the watch list I will not go into it here but will email you..

    I would suggest looking at others as the future is full of surprises as you have already seen

    Now let’s see how long till we have another post from dell. You have touched on a sore subject.

    But also note the response was with full disclousre and from marketing… Same people that told you that you would not have this problem I bet when you bought on years ago.

    Best of luck

    -sent via mobile so pardon any errors in type/spell but not in facts

  4. I have used Compellent in the past. In my humble opinion, the idea of never having to upgrade a system is far fetched in any sense of the word. The truth is drives will get old, technology will become obsolete and trends in the industry will drive change in technology. I think that FATA drives were discontinued as well a few years ago. That doesn’t mean that FATA drives or SATA drives were bad or the wrong thing was purchased. It just means that blanket statements of no forklift upgrade or never having to change out technology can result in feeling like you were mislead. What is going to happen when FC drives are no longer available? They will need to be replaced. This is true of any vendor selling drives. Instead, look for companies that have a history of understanding where the market is going, input on what technology makes sense in the industry and gives you the flexibility to adjust or make moves to those technical trends as they apply to you.

    As far as a watch list, I doubt that there is one. Dell doesn’t have that kind of time. You would have to be really doing some damage.

  5. We ran into the exact same issue with the SATA drives. Last year we purchased a SATA enclosure and 10 SATA disks (leaving six slots open). Several months later we placed an order for the remaining six 2TB SATA disks (for a pricey $13,000!). Compellent accepted the order and claimed to be processing it. After six weeks they said they couldn’t fulfill the order because they had discontinued sales of SATA. Sure enough, our Compellent rep asked to come out and talk about alternatives. The alternative they pushed was that we should scrap our existing SATA enclosure and disks (purchased less than a year earlier) and start over with SAS – since it was the latest and greatest and would be around forever. Sheesh.

  6. This is an interesting topic and one that I deal with very often. First off, there is no way Dell would be able to financially support a “no forklift” program for all the Compellent customers – they would be out of business in a few years and secondly I recently spoke to a Compellent engineer that said there is no formal program for this and that the only time this becomes a reality is when a customer cries loud enough about this and the rep digs into him “BS” fund (each account manager has $100k) to help the customer out and try to retain their business – that is if you still have the same account manager 3 years down the road. This is all a marketing ploy and a case of saying whatever Dell can to customers to get them to buy. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is people!

    For anyone who has ever built their own computer (which Compellent hardware is just a commoditized server) you will know how it is to replace a component in the machine 3 years down the road, weather it’s the memory, no longer compatible with the CPU or motherboard, or new hard disk technology not compatible with the ports available on the motherboard or changes from PCI to PCI-X to PCI-E.

    The majority of businesses don’t want to keep technology more than 3-5 years for many reasons, whether it’s because of the TCO and maintenance costs to maintain that old technology, other technology components of their infrastructure has changed and is not backwards compatible with the older hardware, the cost of purchasing older hardware is too expensive and often it’s cheaper to upgrade the entire solution rather than pay support and maintenance contracts of the older infrastructure.

    For those not aware, if you currently own a C30 array and you want to go to the new Storage Center 6 which is FINALLY 64bit compatible (although there are still memory and cache limitations) you will have
    to do a forklift upgrade. These controllers are useless now.

    At the end of the day, there is no difference amongst storage, server, pc or any other technology out there that wouldn’t have to be replaced down the road if you want new features, functionality, scalability and supportability to keep up with technology. Anyone in IT should know and understand Moore’s Law and how if effects your business and if you don’t then you should find a new industry to work in..

    1. We recently upgraded out series 30 controllers to Series 8000. This process was non-disruptive and required no-forklift. We were able to connect our existing disk enclosures to the new controllers without issue.

      I believe this is what is meant when they talk about no fork-lift. You still replace hardware (when needed) by you don’t need to under-go any disruptive upgrade processes or lengthy data migrations. The data remains in place, the hardware underneath it changes.

      Works for me.

  7. Well, If you are looking for a “no forklift” upgrades solution, check out Datacore Sansymphony-V. I am really happy with it and the cost is dramatically less than other solutions and the reliability and ease of management is great!

    We used HP DL380g7 servers as the storage heads and D2600 /D2700 disk shelves connected via SAS cables to a P400 controllers. We could have used Dell, SuperMicro or any other solution out there. Support has been good as well.

    Just thought i would put in my 2 cents

  8. I am not impressed with Compellent, i have seen a number of cases where performance suffered due to the “fluid data” feature. For some use cases, VDI for example, compellent is unable to support the rollout and the customer had to use a Whiptail or XIOtech solution to replace the Compellent. I have had better luck deploying Datacore Sansymphony-V instead. Performance, managability and flexability use much greater and you can use whatever method you wish to reuse hardware, for instance you can even take a Netapp and front end it with Datacore and eliminate the expensive software licensing costs from Netapp.

    my 2Cents

  9. We’re going through a similar deal right now on a Compellent SAN. We received short notice from our data storage VAR that our SAN needed an end-to-end upgrade. Bob’s explanation fits the facts as we know them. They could no longer guarantee a supply of the drives or bays that we’re using so they had to declare them end of life. The part I’m not comfortable with is the short notice that we received.

    Also as far as the watchlist goes – many companies are using online reputation management services now. Dell is probably paying to monitor for occurrences of terms like ‘Compellent’ ‘Secureworks’ etc. When someone posts something about a product in their portfolio they get an alert.

  10. We had a similar experience with Compellent and now our Compellent units are slowly rotting and just serving up files for our Lab environment. In our production environment we also made the switch to Datacore Sansymphony-V. We’re running Datacore on top of commodity hardware from a company called http://savageio.com. Performance is much improved because of the Datacore caching, costs are down and we have the freedom to install whatever drives, SSDs we choose. Additionally, we’re running our Datacore SANs in an active/active scenario, so we have additional performance and DR gains over our active/passive solution with the Compellent. We were a little hesitant to switch technologies, but after meeting someone at VMworld 2011 who had moved from Compellent to Datacore and had tremendous results we took the plunge. We’ve had our solution in place for over a year now and couldn’t be happier.

  11. I have an EMC solution and this to me is like an American complaining that he doesn’t have Cable TV to a person living in a 3rd world country with no TV at all. If I want to upgrade, I have to change out EVERYTHING. All the hardware would have to be re-bought with the upgraded solution. I would have to run the new one side by side with the old and go through a very difficult process of making new LUNs and zones and copying the data over, etc. It seems to me with your solution, all you have to do is put in the new controller, and voila!, you’re still up and running. I really wish I could do that.

    Here’s hoping we get a Dell Compellent some day!

  12. Honestly, if you’re looking into SATA-based storage (or just don’t want to pay the 10x markup for disks), you should look into CORAID. You’ll be glad you did. Our Compellent works, but performance is not so great.

  13. I work for a Compellent Partner and was a Compellent customer before I join the partner ranks. I have 20+ years of datacenter experience. I was building hard drives in my teens when 5MB hard drives cost $800 and you had to put them together.

    @Evan, forklift does not mean you will never have to upgrade. It just means that you do not have to re-buy the software licenses you already own and you do not have to take downtime to migrate the data. The Compellent allows you to upgrade each individual piece one step at a time. You could upgrade controllers this year and drives the next. You can mix and match drives in the same raid groups. I upgraded a customer recently from 96 drive to 178 drives and never took a second of downtime with zero data migration performed by the customer.

    @ammaros, Really?! SATA based storage is for your house not for an enterprise class storage system that is doing thousands of IOPS every day. The industry tried SATA based storage in enterprise systems but the failure rate was to high and the latency to steep, especially when you start to virtualize servers.

    @Michael Crabtree, we have done a lot of VDI on the Compellent with zero issues. I probably guess that the compellent was not sized correctly in the first place or training. You have the ability to keep VDI in the top tier of storage, with a storage profile.

    @Neil, Compellent is working on the Active/Active scenario. Most other vendors do it by splitting their controllers, which increases the chance of failing on a side. Compellent can do Live Volume for stretch cluster scenarios, but it lacks synchronous replication. That is on the road map for Live Volume and considered a key road map feature.

  14. Hi Evan. I just stumbled onto your compellent post from a while ago. I am really close to getting off of our compellent system because I inherited it in my role at work. Our system is obsolete with outdated drives. I know next to nothing about SANS but found my way through the compellent interface pretty easily.

    I have one last piece of data to migrate off this SANS but as I was in the process of transferring data, I had a FATA drive go down. I happen to have a drive standing by ready to go as a replacement but I never received any training on how to replace and build a disk. The documentation isn’t clear either about how this is accomplished. Is there any way you could steer me in the right direction?

    Do I simply locate the bad drive, release it and drop in the new drive? Does the drive need to be wiped first? I don’t know if your even still checking for posts against this string but I am in a bind and figured I would reach out. Thank you.

    1. Eric, I’d love to help but I haven’t touched a Compellent in nearly 3 years now, so I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong advice. However, from what I recall it was simply a matter of removing the old disk and adding the new one. It should show in the UI that a new drive is present. I don’t remember if it adds the new disk automatically, but Copilot should be able to walk you through the whole procedure.

      1. Thanks Evan. I appreciate the response. I am going to give it a go. I am just not sure if after replacing the disk it will automatically begin rebuilding in my Raid 5 Configuration. Thanks again…your a good guy. 🙂

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