Dell could beat EMC in joint AX4 release

New Clariion array enters a crowded segment -- precisely why Dell stands to gain more

As you may have heard, Dell and EMC this week trumpeted branded versions of the Clariion AX4 storage solution -- in Dell's case, the AX4-5 -- aimed at SMBs. Developed jointly, the technology differs little, yet market strategy may mean Dell will reap deeper rewards.

First off, the specs: The AX4 is a 2U array that can mix SAS and SATA drives in 12 slots, and it gives customers the choice between FC and iSCSI connectivity. Expandable to 60 drives and offering a truckload of management software, the AX4 fills the gap between the low-end Dell/EMC AX150 and the more expensive CX-3 and CX300 lines.

More than fill the gap, however, the AX4 could render the AX150 irrelevant for both vendors -- and challenge CX300 sales as well. After all, why purchase an array limited to 12 drives, as is the case with the AX150, and pass on the ability to mount faster SAS drives? Invest a bit more, and you can bring home an AX4 in a minimal configuration, earning yourself a lot more functionality.

Could that be the reason why Dell is offering an immediate discount of US$1,000 on both the FC and iSCSI AX150, while pushing a more expensive introductory price for the AX4?

Dell's suggested entry-level price for the AX4 is close to US$16,000, about US$7,000 more than what EMC announced, a difference that in large part reflects a bigger starting configuration from Dell. Perhaps this starting configuration has been calculated to keep the AX150 in play.

But the discounting doesn't stop at the low end of the spectrum. Dell is offering an even more substantial cut, US$8,000 or more, on the CX300, another array developed in partnership with EMC.

Is that discount meant to neutralize any temptation the AX4 may hold for customers? Perhaps. The CX300 does address more demanding performance requirements. Yet there is overlap with the AX4, notably the ability to expand to 60 drives and to mix SAS and SATA devices.

Besides, both Dell and EMC draw attention to the fact that the AX4 has inherited its DNA from larger Clariion models.

Time will tell if the AX4 will indeed compete fiercely with its neighboring solutions, but even if it does, that will only play in favor of Dell. Like a gambler carefully spreading bets to maximize profits, Dell has so many horses in the SMB storage race that losing on one or two shouldn't be a problem.

For example, one cannot ignore the MD3000i, an innovative iSCSI array scalable to 45 SAS/SATA drives in three enclosures. Nor should we dismiss the NX1950, a unified storage solution based on Windows Storage Server 2003 R2 that offers iSCSI volumes and file sharing, along with terabytes of scalability.

Even if we ignore the range of solutions that Dell's acquisition of EqualLogic will bring, Dell offers enough variety to satisfy even the most demanding customers in the SMB space. Perfect those solutions are not, but no other vendor can cover the same storage ground today, not even EMC.