HPE recently announced new storage products in the GreenLake family, including a file solution that uses VAST Data Universal Storage software. We dive into the details to understand what has been announced and where HPE is evolving the storage portfolio.
First of all, we should highlight that we have not been briefed by HPE and weren’t invited to attend the launch event held in Houston in April. All of the data presented here is from public sources, our own long-term knowledge of HPE storage solutions and what we’ve read from others briefed on the platform. As a result, there may be some inaccuracies or incorrect assumptions.
The basis of the new announcements is the transition towards a common hardware platform for all HPE Storage offerings. Alletra MP is a suite of hardware components used to deliver the newly announced GreenLake for Block Storage and GreenLake for File Storage (more on both of those in a moment). We think the MP name stands for multi-purpose or perhaps multiple personas. Whatever the nomenclature, the aim is to use a single hardware platform onto which the “storage persona” can be delivered based on customer choice.
- HPE Announces Q1 FY2023 Results
- Finding the Value-Add of HPE GreenLake
- HPE Introduces Alletra and the Data Services Cloud Console
In a true Storage-as-a-Service (StaaS) world, universal hardware would be a great strategy. Imagine being able to drop in standardised hardware to a customer’s data centre, then reconfigure it on-demand based on whether the customer needs more file, block or object storage capacity.
Unfortunately, from what we can see, the first instantiation of Alletra MP only goes partway to solving the universality requirement. We managed to find two quickspecs documents, one covering the GreenLake block solution and the second covering the file solution. These help us understand what’s going on.
GreenLake for Block Storage MP
The block storage platform uses a standard 2U server “compute” chassis, accommodating two controller nodes and up to 24 SFF NVMe drives. The two controllers (which must be identical) are either 8-core or 16-core CPUs with 256GB DRAM and up to eight Fibre Channel ports each for 32/64Gb connectivity. A minimum of eight SSDs can be configured per chassis, with only 8, 12 and 24 drives as options (at launch). A configuration must use drives of the same capacity. The initial 2U setup is not expandable (a future enhancement)
Perhaps the most surprising part of the new Block Storage MP solution is that the hardware is sold as a capex purchase. The software (now called HPE GreenLake for Block Storage OS, but effectively the evolution of the 3PAR platform) is licensed separately on a 1-, 3-, 4-, 5-, 6- or 7-year term and by CPU core count. There are seven fixed capacity tiers, from 0-16TB (tier 1) up to 401-800TB (tier 7). Tier 8 represents capacities of 801TB and higher. The Block Storage MP hardware is a custom factory build based on the customer’s specification, right down to cables and transceivers, all of which are listed with separate SKUs and must be ordered individually.
GreenLake for File Storage MP
The file storage platform uses the same 2U compute chassis but with different controllers. These are 32-core 256GB nodes. In both the block and file configurations, we have no visibility of the hardware or processor architecture but would expect this to be at least PCIe 4.0 and Ice Lake CPUs, perhaps even PCIe 5.0 and Sapphire Rapids, similar to the Alletra 4000 released earlier this year.
The File Storage MP uses VAST Data Universal Storage software, so physical storage capacity is deployed through a separate server with 8 cores and 64GB DRAM per controller and 20 NVMe SSDs (plus four NVMe persistent memory SSDs). Connecting the compute and storage nodes are two Aruba 100GbE switches. A two-switch configuration scales from one to eleven storage nodes. When compared to the VAST architecture, the HPE compute chassis represents C-nodes, while the storage capacity represents D-nodes. We’ve listed our podcasts with VAST for reference below.
- #233 – Introduction to the VAST Data Ceres Hardware Platform with Jeff Denworth
- #105 – Introduction to VAST Data (Part I) with Howard Marks
- #106 – Introduction to VAST Data (Part II) with Howard Marks
Storage software is licensed by capacity (per terabyte) and for 1-, 3- or 5-year terms. HPE lists base, upgrade, and renewal licences. We’re not clear what the differentiation is between these choices. The quickspecs document indicates a selection of capex/subscription or pay-per-use models of consumption, but we can’t find any details on the pay-per-use model online.
Both the file and block solutions described above are definitely moving towards some degree of hardware standardisation. However, we don’t see this transformation as any different to the standardisation already in place with HPE Storage solutions that evolved from the 3PAR and Nimble platforms. In addition, HPE has sold storage solutions from Qumulo and Scality based on common HPE Apollo 4000 hardware for some time.
In reality, the only shared component is the chassis, effectively a carcass for the specific controllers and adapter cards needed to run each solution. If those internal components were shared across both solutions, then perhaps the idea of standardised hardware might have more merit.
One small positive in this area is that the SKUs for the 7.68TB and 15.36TB NVMe SSDs are the same across both families. As the initial deployments are capex offerings, then drives could conceivably be moved between chassis, subject to the purchase of additional licences.
The big winner in the HPE announcement is definitely VAST Data. The VAST Universal Storage solution now powers HPE’s primary GreenLake File platform, with little for VAST to do other than sit back and charge customers for the software licences. We understand that the HPE and VAST implementations of Universal Storage are not the same, but HPE has the option to include any new features that are developed. One notable omission (at the moment) is support within HPE GreenLake for File Storage for the S3 protocol, which is supported by VAST. As HPE already has a partnership with (and investment in) Scality, it’s possible that an Alletra MP variant could be under development with Scality, using a similar model to the VAST Data partnership.
3PAR as a Service
One interesting aspect of the change in the financial model for Alletra MP is the implicit licensing of the 3PAR/Primera/Alletra storage software that detaches the dependence on hardware. This disaggregated model echoes a similar change made by VAST Data in April 2021. We discussed the implications of this transition in a podcast recorded that month (available here).
While we don’t believe that HPE is about to make the GreenLake for Block Storage OS available for non-HPE hardware, the move does raise the possibility of 3PAR software running on the public cloud. HPE doesn’t have a solid public cloud strategy, so we could see storage leading the way.
Note: one question we’ve not been able to clear up is whether the new Alletra MP controllers still use a custom ASIC. This hardware was still in use with Alletra 9000, so we believe it is still there. If HPE has phased out the ASIC, it could be an indication that the Block Storage OS has become more commoditised and could run on the public cloud. If the ASIC is still there, then this points to a continuing bespoke architecture for block storage in the platform.
The Architect’s View®
With the announcement of Alletra MP and the two new GreenLake solutions, HPE is making steps towards further abstraction from bespoke hardware. This is a good move and certainly benefits HPE when selling solutions “as a service”. However, the current capex requirement needs to be quickly replaced by more flexible consumption models, or the “as a service” moniker will rapidly become untenable.
Alletra MP-based solutions are currently limited, with a lot more evolution being promised. For instance, the block storage offering currently doesn’t scale up, while there’s a mesh-based option allegedly coming in the future.
HPE’s storage portfolio could also be seen as a little confusing. There’s now HPE GreenLake for File Storage and Block Storage, a previous Block Storage offering, HPE Alletra Storage, HPE Alletra 4000 (storage server), Alletra dHCI, GreenLake for HCI, Simplivity and solutions with partners. For example, WEKA, Qumulo and Scality are all still listed as GreenLake marketplace offerings. The GreenLake for File Storage is targeted at HPC, AI and large enterprises, so what does HPE offer to compete against NetApp, Dell, or Pure Storage in the general file services space?
Back in 2019, we attempted to understand how HPE was transforming its storage portfolio. Today we still see the same range of solutions (minus those acquired or out of business). The OEM relationship with VAST gives more clarity and stability for the file market, so can we expect the same for object storage?
We can see the foundations of a transformation in HPE Storage, which should result in a long-term separation of hardware and software consumption models. We don’t believe HPE will OEM its storage software for non-HPE equipment, but deployment in the public cloud is definitely a possibility. In the meantime, we will be watching to see how truly “as a service” these solutions become and how far HPE is able to push the consumption model paradigm.
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