A Look at the Dell Active System 800

With recent announcements of software-defined networking capabilities for their Active System line of converged infrastructure it’s worth taking a look at the converged infrastructure offerings from Dell. Right now that consists solely of the Dell Active System 800, a preconfigured & pre-integrated solution aiming to compete with the VCE Vblock and NetApp FlexPods of the world, though the Dell vStart lineup also offers similar hardware with more of a do-it-yourself focus on software integration.

Active System 800 Converged Infrastructure SolutionOne of the strengths of good converged infrastructure is heavy standardization, and the Dell Active System 800 does that with its exclusive use of PowerEdge M620 blades in the M1000e blade chassis. Unlike competitors, Dell allows you to customize the M620 a bit, tweaking memory sizes and onboard hard disks if you desire. Dell advertises that the M620 may have up to 768 GB of RAM but that comes at extreme cost, paid in dollars and in performance. The Intel E5-2600 series of CPUs allows for 24 DIMM sockets, and at the time of this writing 32 GB DIMMs command a premium price. Furthermore, populating all 24 memory sockets with large memory modules limits the memory speed, thereby hampering overall system performance. If you’re looking at the Active System 800 figure 256 GB of memory per node (16 x 16 GB), which is still much more dense than competing Vblocks at 96 GB per node.

Storage in the Active System 800 is supplied by EqualLogic PS-6110 arrays, Dell’s enterprise-level iSCSI offerings. These arrays can be configured in a variety of ways to accommodate performance and capacity needs, using near-line and conventional SAS disks as well as SSD. EqualLogic arrays do automatic data tiering but lack other features, like deduplication and space reclamation, generally considered to be essential in an enterprise storage array. At the Dell Storage Forum 2012 Dell announced these features as part of their storage roadmap but have yet to ship them. Depending on how you choose to use the Active System this may or may not be a problem, especially as hypervisors continue to push this sort of functionality up into software.

Networking in the Active System 800 is accomplished by using I/O aggregators in the M1000e, uplinked to redundant Force10 S4810 10 Gbps switches. These switches are some of Dell’s finest top-of-rack switches, providing low-latency cut-through switching, four 40 Gbps uplinks per chassis, and FCoE support, though all the storage traffic inside the Active System is IP-based iSCSI. The M620 blades connect to the 10 Gbps infrastructure inside the blade chassis using Broadcom converged network adapters which can be partitioned into four virtual adapters. This might be useful for some types of physical deployments, but virtualization users would likely opt to use the native network QoS technologies like VMware’s Network I/O Control instead. Some IT shops might also balk at the lack of an Intel networking option as Broadcom has historically been plagued with driver and firmware issues, especially under Linux.

Dell recently announced the Active Fabric, a push into the software-defined networking (SDN) space aimed at making network management easier, and furthering integration with virtual environments as they become more SDN-aware. It comes along with a new switch, the Dell Networking S5000, which has essentially the same specifications as the S4810 except does not feature low-latency, cut-through switching (switching times on the S4810 are 3.3 nanoseconds, the S5000 is 800 ns) which will likely mean lower prices when it is released in July 2013.

Management of the Active System 800 is done via physical Dell PowerEdge R620s, running virtual machines with the Dell Active System Manager software. This software is the result of Dell’s acquisition of Gale Technologies and is what separates the Dell Active System 800 from its cousins in the Dell vStart lineup. Active System Manager allows users to easily provision or deprovision physical or virtual servers inside the infrastructure, in ways similar to that of VMware vCloud Director. Of course, vCloud Director is only virtual, whereas Active System Manager can do this magic with physical hardware, too. This can be a real timesaver, especially in rapidly growing virtual environments where bare-metal hypervisor deployment tools are incredibly immature, despite constant virtualization vendor talk about automation. In fact, Dell has a variant of the Active System 800, the 800v, aimed squarely at VMware Horizon View deployments in this way.

So should you buy one of these? It’s a good option if the Dell PowerEdge M620 is big enough for your needs and you’re comfortable with the EqualLogic line of storage. If you need larger computing nodes you might want to hold off until larger blades are certified, such as the M9x0 series of blades with four Intel E7 CPUs and more memory options. It also may be worth the short wait until the S5000 and Active Fabric are released if your workloads don’t require the expensive cut-through switching in the S4810. If you want more hardware options and more flexibility a Dell vStart package might also be worth the look, but for now the Active System 800, while not perfect, is a strong entry into the competitive converged infrastructure market.