Dell Technologies Upgrades Microsoft HCI Portfolio with New AX nodes

Dell Technologies has been at the forefront of hybrid cloud development, providing a broad range of solutions to meet the needs from small-scale deployments to large data centers. Dell EMC PowerEdge servers, the industry’s # 1 selling server, provide a strong base for building hybrid data center solutions and software-defined portfolios. Dell Technologies, of course, also provides robust setup services including planning, installation, and maintenance. A wide segment of the Dell EMC portfolio revolves around Microsoft hybrid cloud solutions which have been refreshed today as AX nodes for Azure Stack HCI deployments.

Microsoft portfolio’s crown jewel is of course Azure, their public cloud service. Within the Azure umbrella though, there is so much more. A number of changes and new offerings were released at Microsoft Ignite last year. It includes Azure Stack Hub, an integrated cloud-native system; Azure Arc, a single control plane that covers anything from multi-cloud to edge deployments; and Azure Stack Edge, a cloud-managed appliance. The momentum around those solutions from Microsoft shows no signs of slowing down.

All of these Microsoft cloud solutions offer enterprise-wide value, though Azure Stack HCI may offer the broadest appeal. As we’ve seen over the past year, Azure Stack HCI offers a blend of application performance and ease of management making it an ideal solution for remote office/edge use cases, specific application tasks such as VDI or SQL Server, or for emerging workloads such as Kubernetes.

Although Dell Technology continues to support cloud initiatives by Microsoft, not every company is prepared to go all-in to the public cloud. This tends to be particularly true with small businesses and edge-use cases where it may be more appropriate to have a small, simple-to-use HCI cluster. Dell EMC Solutions for Microsoft Azure Stack HCI provides the latest AX nodes that serve as an easy alternative for companies seeking to optimize their investment in infrastructure, while also leaving open the possibility of leveraging Azure alongside their HCI cluster when the time comes.

Dell EMC OpenManage Solutions with Microsoft Azure Stack HCI

Dell Technologies provides a wide variety of options for organizations wishing to implement Dell EMC Solutions for Microsoft Azure Stack HCI. The center of this choice is the developed solution from Dell EMC – AX nodes – that are validated and certified to run Azure Stack HCI. In reality, Dell EMC has a large number of validated provides in the product catalog across three different node forms. This breadth of offerings offers consumers versatility and flexibility in their HCI implementations with Azure Stack.

Built on the solid foundation of PowerEdge servers, AX nodes are specifically designed and optimized for Azure Stack HCI, are offered with certified and supported components, and include ProSupport and ProDeploy Services specific to Azure Stack HCI. Due to deeper integration with PowerEdge servers, Dell EMC can offer more simplified LCM integration with the Microsoft Windows Admin Center (OMIMSWAC) native OpenManage integration for AX nodes than previous offerings. In addition, Dell EMC will support these post-sales nodes with Azure Stack HCI certified components. These latest AX nodes come in three different models: AX-640, AX-740xd, and AX-6515.

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The AX-640 and AX-740xd nodes have Intel Xeon Scalable processors of the second generation and can be designed to build hybrid or all-flash nodes with NVMe, SSD and HDD modules. It helps Dell EMC to leverage other Intel products supported by Azure Stack HCI, including persistent memory devices such as Intel Optane SSD and Optane.

The AX-640 is a dual-socket 1U node, designed for high-performance, dense HCI workloads. This is the only node in the AX portfolio that supports devices with ultra-high capacity Intel Optane Persistent Memory and SSD. It can be equipped with RAM 96 to 768 GB, and storage 3 to 92 TB. For example, the AX-640 AX node can be configured to produce what is probably the fastest HCI node on the market.

The AX-740xd is a dual-socket 2U node designed to find a balance between HCI workload capacity, performance, and cost. It can be equipped with RAM 96 GB to 1.5 TB, and storage 3 to 192 TB.

While Intel dual-socket processor nodes are the AX-640 and AX-740xd, the AX-6515 is a single-socket AMD processor node. It was planned to be as cost-efficient as possible with its 64-core Gen 2 AMD EPYC processor, thus delivering adequate horsepower for standard workloads. We see the AX-6515 as a good match for deployments at the edge, remote office, and SMB. This can be loaded with RAM from 64 GB to 1 TB, and storage from 3 to 60 TB.

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From a Windows licensing perspective, the high core-count AMD processor may be troublesome. To combat this, Dell EMC customers receive a discounted Windows Datacenter Server license with the Windows Server 2019 Additional License Plus (1SKT) and Windows Server 2019 Additional License Plus (2SKT) plan for all processor cores over 32-core in 1-socket nodes and over 64-core in 2-socket servers.

The new AX models from Dell EMC allow customers to choose HCI nodes that have been optimized for Azure Stack HCI. These nodes are built to operate with computing density (AX-640), storage-centric (AX-740xd), or value-optimized (AX-6515).

Dell EMC also provides a range of choices in networking, in addition to the variety of HCI nodes available. Dell EMC recommends and supports 10GbE, 25GbE, and 100GbE networking for Azure Stack HCI. The flash-based Azure Stack HCI clusters supporting 25/100GbE with RDMA are important as flash and software stack will easily benefit from high-speed networking. That said, performance is not the key to every configuration. For example, a 2-node Azure Stack HCI cluster can be configured switchless to make deployment for edge and distributed environments easier, more cost-effective, and more spatially stable.

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The PowerEdge portfolio in this Azure Stack HCI offering clearly represents a net profit for Dell EMC. Owning the server allows Dell EMC the opportunity to use its portfolio of technologies and IP not only to build the solutions but also to finance them. The AX nodes are the direct result, as these nodes can be produced and certified by Dell EMC, where many of its competitors can only create reference designs or rely on a third-party source for server and system support.

Dell EMC Integration for Microsoft Windows Admin Center

The simplicity of management is important as many Azure Stack HCI solutions find their way to the bottom. Dell EMC has a few interesting components here as the nodes offer iDRAC for out-of-band agent-free management, of course, themselves.

Dell EMC provides the integration of OpenManage with Microsoft Windows Admin Center for cluster management, Dell EMC has integrated their Lifecycle Management (LCM) program with WAC for its AX nodes, which is available as a native management solution by default. Customers have access to a single application and cluster management system through this integration, which significantly simplifies the administration of an HCI cluster.

Specifically, the OpenManage extension has automated the Day-100 maintenance tasks involving hardware upgrades to the Azure Stack HCI cluster. It leverages the pre-validated Azure Stack HCI Solutions catalog performing cluster-aware updating significantly reducing the manual, time-consuming work done by administrators otherwise in performing BIOS, Firmware, Driver updates to the nodes in the cluster and the best thing is that the updates are made available with zero downtime to the roles, workloads running on the cluster.

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Microsoft’s WAC provides the cluster manager’s HCI management capabilities for the Azure Stack HCI. Using the OpenManage Interface with WAC, Dell EMC ‘s special LCM interface expands these features by adding the ability to run cluster-aware BIOS, as well as firmware and driver updates for AX Nodes. It enables Dell EMC to update nodes sequentially, reducing downtime for workloads while upgrading an Azure Stack HCI cluster operating on AX nodes in hybrid and edge scenarios by supporting the Dell EMC online catalogs or the offline catalog based on Dell EMC Repository Manager (DRM) to ensure that the HCI performs the latest updates in an optimized manner.

Flexibility in the Cloud or On-prem

Apart from the management benefits that Dell Technologies provides when it comes to Azure Stack HCI, the platform supports many Azure cloud services natively. One of our favorites is Azure Site Recovery, which offers a simple way for companies to establish a disaster recovery plan. But there are also other services, including Azure Backup and Azure File Sync, and other tools for upgrading, monitoring, and security. Although these solutions can be deployed in small two-node clusters, we don’t want to underplay the scale-up potential, as Windows Server 2019 provides some impressive scalability increases. Similar to Windows Server 2016, Windows Server 2019 increases the disk space four times, and double the size and volume amount per server and cluster. Despite these rises, an Azure Stack HCI cluster of 16 nodes now supports 3PB of capacity. For larger deployments, the cluster sets can support thousands of nodes. Systemwide, Azure Stack HCI manages the cluster ‘s ongoing operational needs by managing and processing the virtual machines (VM) on it automatically.

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Dell Technologies provides a range of services around Azure Stack HCI, including ProDeploy and ProSupport, both regular and plus-level, should the need arise. Although the Azure Stack HCI solution is pretty easy to put to use, it’s a huge advantage that the Dell EMC support network weight is available with over 30,000 service specialists to assist with hardware or software-related problems. Apart from that, we have used ProSupport for our Dell EMC Networking switches many times. The support team’s technical depth and experience are impressive and especially important to us because we aren’t deep inside networking.

Final Thoughts

Microsoft has been delivering a robust range of hybrid cloud solutions and Dell Technologies has been there from the outset. We’ve concentrated mainly on Azure Stack HCI and the latest AX nodes in this article, but it’s important to note that Dell EMC will help customers deploy and handle everything in Microsoft’s Azure and Enterprise offerings. This involves everything from the complex migrations of Windows and SQL Server to the on-site delivery of Azure Services via the Dell EMC Integrated Stack Hub Network.

Dell EMC provides a range of proven solutions that utilize its broad portfolio of HCI, Servers, Networking and Data Protection to help customers onboard these technologies soon. We’ve touched on the benefits here and while others are engineering-related and hard to see, Dell EMC ‘s integration with Windows Admin Center is one that really shines. Here, the link between current server management tools from Dell EMC and those offered by Microsoft is broader than anything we’ve seen.