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Dell EMC vs NetApp – how do their storage solutions compare?

Categories: Cloud, Data Centre

In my previous blog I set out what I believe are 12 key data strategies for 2021 and concluded that NetApp are well placed to deliver what organisations need.

But how do Dell EMC compare? Having worked with them for nearly 20 years, actually about 10 years longer than I have worked with NetApp, I am well placed to compare their respective solutions. Read on to see how they stack up …

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Use the cloud where it makes economical & practical sense

NetApp are practically pushing their customers to the cloud, which is slightly odd for a storage vendor, as they recognise that the future of IT is a blend of on-premises and cloud services. Over the last 5+ years they have focused on:

  • Integrating ONTAP with the cloud
    • With tiering, replication, backup & monitoring
  • Building a cloud services portfolio that consists of:
    • Data mobility between private & public clouds
    • Compute & storage resource optimisation
    • Compute & storage services for Kubernetes
    • Hybrid cloud infrastructure monitoring
    • Global file sharing
    • Storage as a service
    • SaaS application backup
    • Virtual desktop management

Of all the storage vendors NetApp leads the way in embracing the cloud, which is something very much recognised by Gartner, you can find the links to their reports here.

It would be wrong to suggest that Dell EMC have not embraced the cloud, as they have solutions for tiering, backup and monitoring, but it’s far more disjointed as they started much later, have many different platforms to maintain and it’s just not part of their DNA like it’s with NetApp.

An important question to ask yourself is would you be better off building a storage strategy with a vendor who is 100% behind supporting multiple clouds or one that’s focused on on-premises infrastructure and their own cloud solutions that tie you into VMware?

Keep things as simple as possible & avoid silos by using smart unified storage

Without a doubt this is the Achilles’ heel of Dell EMC, we need multi-purpose primary storage not five completely different storage platforms (i.e. Unity XT, PowerStore, PowerScale (Isilon), PowerMax & PowerProtect DD (Data Domain)).

NetApp has FAS, E-Series and SolidFire, now FAS can fundamentally do everything and in many cases more than the five Dell EMC solutions, so why do we need E-Series and SolidFire?

E-Series is a simple SAN solution that cannot match the capabilities of FAS, but it’s more cost-effective and therefore better for certain use cases (i.e. backup/archive, media & HPC). I struggle to see where SolidFire has any significant advantages over All Flash FAS, therefore in my opinion NetApp should cease development of the platform.

Use flash for active data & the cloud or NL-SAS for inactive data

When it comes to storage the humble NL-SAS drive is still the optimal location for much of the world’s data, whether that is on-premises or in the cloud. It’s therefore important that vendors allow their customers to make their own choices and provide a single solution that can:

  • Scale up and out with a mix of SSDs and HDDs as appropriate
  • Use flash as a cache to accelerate access to data stored on HDDs
  • Automatically tier inactive SAN & NAS data at the block not LUN/file level
    • Between volumes, within and across arrays
    • To on-premises and public cloud object storage

NetApp ONTAP based solutions meet all of these requirements, whereas Dell EMC PowerStore, PowerMax and PowerScale do not support the advanced tiering capabilities and all but PowerScale are only available in all-flash models.

Reduce complexity by minimising the use of SAN LUNs

Dell’s storage strategy was historically very SAN centric and I believe very few of their customers used their NAS gateways. EMC had a better story, but much like Dell they used a gateway running a separate OS to add NAS support to their SAN platforms.

The purchase, over 10 years ago, of the Isilon (PowerScale) scale-out NAS platform gave them another NAS OS to maintain.

The next phase of their evolution was the VNXe that unified SAN and NAS into a single OS, this has subsequently evolved into Unity, Unity XT and now PowerStore – you can clearly see that they have been on a journey to bring the architecture of their mid-range platform much more inline with NetApp FAS.

PowerMax has always been very SAN centric and ultimately the same goes for Unity XT/PowerStore, so the only time their is a real focus on NAS is with PowerScale, but it cannot support vSphere/Oracle using NFS and Hyper-V/SQL Server using SMB, so for most Dell EMC customers LUNs are still the preferred choice.

ONTAP is a fully unified storage OS and NetApp encourages their customers to use NFS with vSphere/Oracle and SMB with Hyper-V/SQL Server where it makes sense.

Provisioning LUNs over NVMe/FC (NetApp was the first to support end-to-end NVMe), Fibre Channel and iSCSI are of course fully supported providing customers with maximum choice and flexibility. For organisations that want to remain SAN centric NetApp has a SAN optimised platform called All SAN Array, which does not support any non-SAN protocols.

Use storage that provides integrated snapshot-based data protection

For a storage vendor to provide integrated data protection they need an advanced snapshot engine that allows for many 100s of snapshots to be maintained per volume without a performance overhead. Traditional SAN vendors could never do this (neither can the Dell EMC PowerScale scale-out NAS platform) therefore most have focused on traditional external backups.

NetApp ONTAP based solutions can provide the integrated capabilities required to meet the data protection needs of many organisations and it can also be combined with traditional backup solutions such as Veeam and Commvault, to provide the “best of both worlds”, with snapshots always being the preferred restore option due to their huge recovery time advantage.

There simply are too many benefits to using snapshots (i.e. far faster backups and restores, combined replication of snapshots with the data for DR and far more efficient replication to the cloud) to ignore them. I think it’s fair to say that more recently Dell EMC have embraced the technology by bringing Unity and PowerStore much more inline with the capabilities of ONTAP, but do they truly believe in the power and importance of snapshot technology?

An important question to ask yourself is would you be better off using an efficient integrated solution for the majority of your backup and restore needs or backing-up your data every day to an external deduplication appliance?

Use active/active storage when continuous availability is required

The ability to provide a zero RPO and near zero RTO with transparent application failover is something that many organisations require, no matter their size. EMC historically have had some excellent solutions in SRDF/Metro and VPLEX Metro, but both of these are complex therefore are most suitable for large organisations.

What is required is a solution that provides a low cost entry point with maximum flexibility – the ability to replicate a volume asynchronously, synchronously or active/active – Dell EMC’s SC Series Live Volumes is one such technology, but unfortunately the platform has an uncertain future.

NetApp have two solutions, MetroCluster which is aimed at large organisations, who would typically deploy SRDF/Metro or VPLEX Metro, that provides complete site level failure and SnapMirror Business Continuity (SM-BC) which is far more granular as it can be configured at the volume level.

For most organisations SM-BC is the better option as it’s simple, flexible and lower cost (much like Live Volumes) with the only limitations being that it doesn’t currently support NAS and hybrid-flash FAS arrays.

Use enterprise-grade NAS for large scale file shares

Enterprise-grade NAS makes the most sense at scale so Dell EMC will typically position PowerScale as their preferred solution, the problem is that it’s at its best when used with media/video workloads, not with departmental file shares because PowerScale is optimal when:

  • Sequentially reading and writing large files
  • Using snapshots & replication with large sequentially accessed files
  • Storing files that do not benefit from compression & deduplication
  • Avoiding storing small files as they incur a capacity overhead
  • There is rapid growth (i.e. 30%+ per year) due to the simplicity of scaling
  • Using the minimum number of nodes for a give amount of capacity/performance to keep costs down

NetApp FAS based solutions are highly optimised for small files and random IO, much like Unity XT/PowerStore, but they have more advanced efficiency, snapshot, replication and cloud integration features. They can also scale to 10s of PBs in a single file system, much like PowerScale, with the advantage of being able to scale-up and out to keep costs down.


The primary focus of any storage solution should be the software not the hardware, as performance and capacity scaling are now more or less table stakes.

The analogy of the smart phone is a perfect one as we need a storage OS that is as powerful, flexible and innovative as Android and iOS. The problem is that Dell EMC have so much legacy baggage it’s stopping them from delivering what customers want, for example:

  • There appears to be no plans to build:
    • A single unified platform that can start small and scale big as this will reduce sales of PowerMax & PowerScale
    • An OS that runs on multiple appliance generations, 3rd party hypervisors and the cloud as this will reduce storage hardware sales
    • Integrated data protection into their storage OS as this will reduce sales of PowerProtect DD
    • Tight integration with the major cloud providers as this will reduce both storage and server hardware sales
  • Unity XT and PowerStore are the only primary storage platforms that are easy to use, but all the advanced SAN features are in PowerMax and all the advanced NAS features are in PowerScale

Dell EMC are simply not making things easier for themselves and their customers, whereas NetApp has no such baggage. With ONTAP they have the storage industries only equivalent to Android and iOS, which is more than a match for the combined capabilities of Unity XT, PowerStore, PowerMax, PowerScale and PowerProtect DD.

If your organisation is considering purchasing new Dell EMC storage then take an in-depth look at what NetApp has to offer – the capabilities and value proposition simply cannot be ignored.

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