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HPE’s Nimble Upgrade: Balancing Price and Performance

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When Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) announced plans to acquire Nimble Storage last year, there was some head-scratching in the storage array business. The acquisition seemed to fill a hole for customers seeking a dedicated, non-clustered array, but as one tech expert at the time asked, “What were they thinking?” Now we know.

Earlier this month, HPE rolled out important updates to Nimble’s all-flash and hybrid product lines. The public announcement focused on three things:

  • Updated platforms that are NVMe-ready and support storage-class memory (SCM) to accommodate the growth of performance-intensive applications.
  • New cloud-ready, all-flash arrays that can triple improvement in price-performance.
  • What HPE describes as an industry-first pre-sales guarantee to store more data per raw terabyte of storage than competitor all-flash arrays.

The changes include a bit of streamlining. HPE’s four CS and secondary flash (SF) product series have been consolidated into three new hybrid lines, the HF20, 40 and 60 series, with standard deduplication. The five all-flash series have been reduced to four, the AF20, 40, 60 and 80.

So, what’s under the hood?

The Nimble Gen 5 builds on familiar NimbleOS features, including recovery options and simplified workflows. The new platforms have been reconfigured to gain processing speed at lower cost. HPE also sought to future-proof the line with built-in flexibility that will handle the evolving demands of web analytics, business intelligence, real-time trading and other applications.

An updated chassis enables rapid adoption of latest Intel CPUs and new media. Intel’s Skylake CPUs should show >3X performance increase, depending on the model. HPE expects to more than double sequential performance on its retooled all-flash AF60 and AF80 models, for example.  Capacity scales will grow, with up to 2X effective capacity of AF 40/60/80 and up to 2.5X effective capacity on its hybrid HF60.

Wait, there’s more! Memory has been added to AF40/60/80 models. The AF80 doubles the capacity of its predecessor, the AF9000.

There is a lot to like in the Nimble platform. The ease of controller upgrades is a good example. It is in the controller CPUs where most of the pre- and post-processing is done. An upgrade involves little more than swapping out controllers, a step that can be taken while on line between series and, by the end of this year, among generations.

The new Nimble platform will scale higher with more effective capacity, meaning the volume of data that a user can actually load on their system after accommodating for compression and deduplication. This could be markedly different than benchmarks for raw or useable capacity.

With Nimble, we’re now seeing with compression a 1-1.5 ratio of usable to effective capacity. In other words, if your raw capacity is 100 with a useable 80, with compression your effective capacity would be 120. So actual capacity is going to be higher than raw disk capacity. Deduplication will add to this. HP is quoting 3x capacity, but early testing suggests something closer to 5x.

You said something about cost

HPE says the new Nimble all-flash arrays can deliver up to a 3x improvement in price-performance with costs falling as much as 70% for input/output operations per second, depending on the model. The company also expects a 30% reduction in cost-effective GB, again depending on the model. Capacity efficiency also expected to lower total cost of ownership.

The HPE Store More Guarantee may also figure into pricing with the company promising to provide free incremental storage if it is unable to meet the storage efficiency of an all-flash competitor.

Cost-saving is also a factor in HPE’s interesting decision to use both cache and hard drives in the adaptive flash or hybrid array that will complement the all-flash array. Its hybrid array can be used for backup, DR, and archival at a fraction of the cost of the all-flash arrays.

While at least one competitor has moved to all flash, Nimble has managed to accelerate its hybrid system to a capacity and speeds that are in the flash ballpark with the advantage of greatly reduced costs.

What happens to Nimble’s analytics tool?

At the time of the 2017 acquisition, at least one tech analyst wondered if HPE would fully take advantage of Nimble’s analytics tool, InfoSight. I wasn’t among the cynics – a powerful analytics tool is indispensable these days. InfoSight is a powerful differentiator with its focus on predictive as opposed to trending analytics.

We saw a real-life example of this recently when a client on the Nimble platform was loading apps and could see spikes in the migration. InfoSight tracked usage, monitored the spikes, projected ultimate requirements, and recommended – in the form of an e-mail – an upgrade to accommodate the new capacity demands. The e-mail was a nice touch.

With the new Nimble rollout, HPE leaves no doubt that InfoSight remains center stage. The company has found that the tool automatically predicts and resolves 86% of storage-related problems before customers become aware of an issue. HPE’s confidence in InfoSight is evident in its decision to make the tool part of its 3PAR offering.

Will HPE’s Nimble upgrades pay off?

Pay off? Yes, based on what we’ve seen so far. But will it be a game changer? That’s less certain. For one thing, Dell, IBM, Pure and other competitors will certainly continue their own efforts at innovation, and the speed, flexibility and cost-effectiveness of all-flash and hybrid storage will continue to improve.

HPE is doing what it must do as its customers grapple with the rising flood of structured and unstructured data and the challenge of giving businesses the power of using this data to grow their business and satisfy their customers. With its strong new Nimble platform and its neat list of benefits, HPE’s competitors will have to stay on their toes.


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