Dell EMC Unity XT Review

Hits a sweet spot for us between price point and the amount of storage and performance

What is our primary use case?

We use Dell EMC Unity XT as our primary storage, mostly for VMware, the tier-one storage of our VMs. We use it for SaaS and corporate. We do replications with it. I hate to call Unity your standard, basic storage, but it's your standard, basic, old-school, tried and true, reliable, classic storage. Nothing fancy, but it gets the job done, has all the features you need, and is easy to use.

Performance-wise, we actually use ScaleIO for the high-performance stuff. But Unity, as your classic storage, does a fairly good job.

We actually use it just about everywhere because, in the majority of the use cases in our company, there is a need for a lot of storage but they don't have a lot of IOPS. Unity fits that use case well. For the areas that need high performance, the high IOPS, it doesn't fit. But that's okay. That's why you have multiple SAN solutions.

How has it helped my organization?

One of the benefits it brings is the value for its price. It has saved us a lot of money. It does the job. It just works. We just bought a bunch of new Unity's that allowed us to do a lot of consolidation. Those four Unity's replaced 13 VNXs and older Unity's. 

In terms of simplicity of ownership, I think we still have somewhere in the neighborhood 20 Unity's and they're managed by four storage guys. So, from a simplicity perspective, you can manage a lot of Unity's across a lot of data centers with a very small staff.

What is most valuable?

In addition to the price point, you factor in all the features, like replication, and that it works great.

Like most newer SANs, the interface is very simplistic. I'm still used to the old-school SAN where you need a PhD to be able to configure it. I'll pick on NetApp as an example. To work on a NetApp, needing a certification isn't a recommendation, it's a requirement. You don't want someone who hasn't had all the required training working on NetApp. On a Unity, you can throw it in a remote office and tell whoever is there, "Hey, go click on these buttons." And you really don't have to worry about them clicking on the wrong thing. 

Or if I even need them to rack and install the Unity, it's a handful of cables here and there, where it's called out and easy to follow. There is just no complexity to it. A lot of SANs are easy to use these days. Unity was - if I recall correctly, especially on the VNX line, before they changed the name to Unity - one of the first to really lead in having that simplistic interface; the "why make this hard?" mindset.

What do I think about the stability of the solution?

We have had some downtime. Nothing is perfect. Unity’s have had some code-release problems, versions that, from a compatibility perspective, had some glitches which caused an outage. But, given the amount of Unity’s we run, that has been fairly minor and it hasn't happened at scale or across all of our Unity’s. 

It's more like, "Hey, we have a new code. Let's deploy it," and we have a situation where we can deploy it in a given location first. So we deploy in that location. Oops, it has an issue. Roll back and get Dell EMC engaged and resolve it and move on.

It hasn't really been that big of a deal. As a great "for instance," with ExtremeIO - which we bought starting about two years ago, and deployed in one of our divisions as their primary storage because we needed performance there - it's had so many issues that upper management has essentially banned us from ever buying an ExtremeIO again, because of the downtime. Either because of compatibility or just straight up code problems, it's just not a stable SAN. And the one thing you want out of a SAN is that it has to be stable.

So as long as Unity remains good and stable, that will be a primary reason that we use it.

What do I think about the scalability of the solution?

It scales decently to 100,000 IOPS, maybe 150,000. But as long as your IOPS requirements are below that, it does a great job.

With the nature of the architecture, there's a limitation to its total, possible throughput. So if you need IOPS above that 150,000 mark, your Unity engineer will say something like, "Oh, we just need to cluster it and do that." That's a very old-school approach. If you need more IOPS than what Unity SAN can provide, clustering is not a great option. The better option is to go with a SAN with better IOPS. Unity is good at what Unity does, so don't try to make it do what it doesn't do. It's great for bulk storage, up to a certain performance level. If you use it for that, it works great.

On a per-SAN basis we could have 3,000 to 6,000 VMs connecting to it.

How are customer service and technical support?

Technical support is responsive, of course. If it's obviously a Unity issue, it's usually a pretty simple and straightforward fix.

It's when they say, "Well, no, the Unity's fine. It must be an issue with the host. Or it must be an issue with the VM," where you get a little bit of that finger-pointing going on. Then it becomes that struggle of stopping the finger-pointing. It's all one company so let's all get on the same phone call and figure out where the problem is.

That is usually something we have to start, whereas from a Dell EMC/VMWare/whatever-else-is-involved perspective, they're not the ones to start that bridge or that conversation.

Especially if it's a production outage, I don't care about finger-pointing. I don't want to hear about it. No one does within the organization. They want it fixed. If you don't think it's a SAN problem but it's clearly an issue with the SAN, let's get everyone involved who needs to be involved and fix the problem.

So it would be great, in terms of future support calls that fall under that finger-pointing category, to have them say, "Okay, we need to now engage so and so. Let's get them on the call."

Which solution did I use previously and why did I switch?

We had a lot of VNXs that we retired and we moved over to Unity. But that's just a natural progression of the product line. We also replaced a lot of old VMAXs with Unity. It might not be the sexiest box but its performance has grown through the generations to the point where it can do the job we used to have to buy VMAXs for.

We replaced the VNXs due to multiple factors. End-of-life was a big aspect; end of service contracts. It's cheaper to install a Unity than to renew the maintenance on an old SAN. That's where it's at. 

We were able to reduce our monthly spend significantly enough by doing that consolidation that we were actually able to buy the ScaleIO's we needed for another division.

When I look for a vendor to work with, I care more about the product than the vendor. Personally, I am most happy with a mixed environment. A mixed environment tends to be typically configured to best practices more frequently, with fewer proprietary aspects. Those proprietary aspects are typically what box you in or prevent you from doing something as technology changes. By running a mixed environment, you have more flexibility and ability. With that being said, I run all things VMWare. So it's a relative thing.

From a SAN perspective, storage-wise, I look at storage as a commodity. That's really what it is. Give me a server. I don't care what it is. Give me a SAN. I don't care what it is. Make it cheap, let it hit the performance marks I need, and make it reliable. If it's those three things, what it is doesn't matter to me. Whether it's a Unity or something else, I don't care. I'm not buying the brand, I'm not buying the vendor. I'm buying a commodity.

Like I said, Unity wins on ROI. As long as it wins on ROI, as long as it wins on uptime, as long as it does the job it's doing, it will continue to be the one that gets installed. When it fails to meet those, we'll switch.

We used to have a lot of NetApp. We've always bought BMC. But we have had no problem changing vendors. We buy a lot of Cisco. We don't care what the server is. The Dell EMC servers are cheaper, so that's what we go with. It's all about satisfying the base requirements and getting the job done.

How was the initial setup?

I've installed Unity’s, but it's been a few years. The setup is a piece of cake. It's super easy: click, click, click, done.

Regarding upgrades, the guys who take care of that do so on a very regular basis with no real issues. They do it through maintenance windows. But at the end of the day, they really haven't had too many problems; a few of those minor problems I've mentioned, but overall, it works well.

What was our ROI?

From an ROI perspective, I'll put it this way: When we've tried to buy other SANs, the Unity ROI makes it impossible to buy them. So usually, the only time we buy another SAN is when the ROI isn't a factor, when Unity can't do the job. From an ROI perspective, it's great because it beats out everything else.

We've tried to look at other options but, at the end of the day, when you price it out, the Unity wins.

What's my experience with pricing, setup cost, and licensing?

Its biggest valuable feature is its price point for the amount of storage and performance you get. It's a sweet spot. It's cheaper than the other SANs out there, but performs well enough. It fits that nice, middle-ground portfolio.

If your small office or data center needs a couple petabytes, or just lots and lots of storage, it works great. Or if you need just a couple of hundred terabytes worth of storage, it works great. The price point hits that right spot.

What other advice do I have?

As for advice to someone who is interested in this type of solution, I would simply say, "Talk to so and so, because that's what they do, and have fun." We use it across the board. So if someone needs a Unity for their project and they want their own SAN for some reason, they just have to go through the approval process. There's no fight to buying a Unity, because again, from an ROI perspective, no one argues.

In terms of the buying process, I'll start with getting a quote. I find it's pretty easy, mainly because I worked as a consultant, so I actually would build those BOMs (bills of materials); the pre-quote build. For me, it's super easy - because I've done that career-wise - to build a BOM for a SAN, Unity, or otherwise. Typically you have your BOM. And from the BOM you get your quote. From the quote you get your invoice. The BOM is the first step. You get your approvals, that this is the configuration I want.

So it is easy for me but not necessarily for your "Joe Average" person, for the rest of the storage guys. Their typical response is, "Okay, I need a new Unity with these IOPs and this capacity. Go." And they just have our partner, through whom we buy this stuff, build the BOM. The partner sends it to us and says, "Hey, this is what we're doing for you." We say, "Okay, it looks great." And it moves forward. The struggle is after you get past that point, on our side, where it goes through our approval, what we call the CAR process. That's where it takes some time. That's not necessarily a Dell EMC issue or even an issue with our partner. That's an internal logistics and political issue.

I would rate this solution at eight out of 10 because, at the end of the day, it is an old-school SAN. It really doesn't take advantage of any of the modern-day advances in SAN technology.

**Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.
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