Introducing (and Expanding) the Asigra Cloud Backup Connector Appliance (from the Asigra Partner Summit)

As some of you know, I’m starting a new job soon working with software vendors integrating their products around Cisco platforms. While it’s not my day job yet, I’ve been pondering some less explored options to look into when I do get settled in.

This week I’m at the Asigra Partner Summit in Toronto, with my blogger/technologist hats on. I was a bit surprised to run into a Cisco 2900 ISR (Integrated Services Router) with a UCS E-Series blade module in it, in the hands-on-labs area of the Summit. For me, at least, it’s the unicorn of Cisco UCS; I’ve seen an E-Series system twice now, and once was in the Cisco booth at Cisco Live this year.

What’s this Cisco UCS E-Series all about?

284666[1]The Cisco UCS E-Series blade gives you a single Xeon E5 processor, three DIMM slots, 1-2 2.5″ form factor drives, a PCIe slot, and the manageability of standalone UCS servers without the infrastructure overhead that would be cost- and space-prohibitive in a single or dual node B-Series or C-Series deployment. It does not integrate with UCSM, although you can run multiple blades in an ISR. It’s an intriguing platform for remote office/branch office (ROBO) environments, with the capability to integrate your routing/switching/firewall/network services with your utility server needs, including backup and recovery.

But what’s it doing at the Asigra Partner Summit?

As it turns out, this “Asigra Cloud Backup Connector Appliance” deploys the Asigra Cloud Backup software with the ISR and E-Series platform. It makes sense, and while I wish I’d thought of it sooner, or they’d thought of it later, it is a pretty cool idea.

You can use the appliance as a standalone device, running Asigra DS-Client and DS-System software to collect and store your backups on internal storage. You can also use it as an aggregator or data collector running DS-Client, which would send the data to your DS-System server elsewhere (perhaps a standalone server on-site, or a datacenter or hosted vault).

The one catch is that you’re a bit limited on the internal storage. Cisco has certified 1TB SATA and 900GB 10K SAS drives for the E140DP blade, which means you’re capped at 2TB raw in the server. Asigra has incorporated deduplication in their backup software for over 20 years, so depending on your data you’ll probably see 8-10TB (or more) capacity, but you may still hit some limits.

How do we get around this capacity limit?

If you want to use your Cloud Backup Connector Appliance as a standalone service, I see two possible paths, but each has its drawbacks.

First, since the drive bays are standard 2.5 SATA form factor, you could install your own aftermarket 1.5TB or 2TB drives, doubling your capacity to 3-4TB raw. This means you’re managing your own disks though, and it could complicate Cisco support (although if you’re tearing into the gear you probably already know this and understand the risks).

Second, since you have a PCIe slot in the server, I could imagine either installing a PCIe flash card (such as the 3.2TB  Fusion-io “Atomic” ioMemory SX300 card just announced last week) or a SATA/SAS storage controller connected to some sort of external array.

There are two downsides to this second option. Cisco has not announced certification of anything but a quad-port Gigabit Ethernet or single-port 10-Gigabit Ethernet controller in the PCIe slot (so you’re blazing your own trail if you swap them out–they should work, but…). And if you put storage in that slot, you can no longer expand networking, and will be limited to two internal (chassis) ports and two external (RJ45) ports for Gigabit Ethernet networking. Oh, and a third concern is that you lose the encapsulation factor with your storage hanging off of the server rather than being inside the server.

As I ponder the pitfalls to the PCIe expansion option, I find myself wishing for a dual-Ethernet / SAS card similar to what Sun used to sell for Ethernet and SCSI back in the day. I think HP had a single port combo as well. Alas, both of those are antiquated and are PCI-X instead of PCIe. You could use FCoE from the 10-Gigabit Ethernet card if you have that infrastructure in place, but that might be beyond branch office scale as well.

So what are you saying, Robert?

I may be overengineering this. I’ve done that before. Dual 10-Gigabit in my home lab, for example.

For a branch office with ~20 500GB desktops, a pile of mobile devices, and a server or two, with judicious backup policies, you’re in good shape with the standard configuration. Remember, you’re deduplicating the OS and common files, compressing the backed-up data, and leaving the door open to expanding your Asigra deployment as your branch offices grow.

And if you choose to, you can run a hypervisor on your E-Series server, with Asigra DS-Client/DS-Server VMs as well as your own servers, to the limits of the hardware (6-core CPU, 48GB RAM). The system can boot from SD card, leaving the internal disk entirely for functional storage and VM data stores.

Where do we go from here?

Even with the 2TB raw disk limitation (which will probably be addressed eventually by Cisco), you have a very functional and featureful option for small offices, remote offices, and even distributed campus backup and recovery aggregation.

You get all the benefits of Asigra’s software solution, including agentless backup of servers and desktops, mobile device support, dedupe and compression, FIPS 140-2 certified encryption at rest and in flight, and Asigra’s R2A (Recovery and Restore Assurance) for ongoing validation of your backed-up data.

And you get the benefits of Cisco’s ISR and E-Series platforms for your networking services and server implementation. You can purchase pre-installed systems through an Asigra Service Provider, or if you already own an ISR with an E-Series server, your Service Provider can install and license Asigra software on your existing gear.

Disclosure:

I am attending the Asigra Partner Summit at Asigra’s invitation, as an independent blogger, and the company has paid for my travel and lodging to attend. I have not received any compensation for participating, nor have Asigra requested or required any particular coverage or content. Anything related on rsts11.com or in my twitter feed are my own thoughts and of my own motivation.

Also, while I am a Cisco UCS fanboy and soon to be a Cisco employee, any comments, observations, and opinions on UCS are my own, based on my personal experience as well as publicly available information from Cisco and other vendors. I do not speak for Cisco nor should any of my off-label ideas be taken to imply Cisco approval or even awareness of said musings.

How do you solve a problem like Invicta? PernixData and external high performance cache

PernixData and unconventional flash caching

We spent a captivating two hours at PernixData in San Jose Wednesday. For more general and detailed info on the conversations and related announcements, check out this post by PernixData’s Frank Dennenman on their official blog, and also check out Duncan Epping’s post on YellowBricks.

At a very high and imprecise level, PernixData’s FVP came out last year to provide a caching layer (using flash storage, whether PCI-E or SSD) injected at the vmkernel level on VMware hypervisors. One big development this week was the option to use RAM in place of (or in addition to) flash as a caching layer, but this is unrelated to my thoughts below.

One odd question arose during our conversation with Satyam Vaghani, CTO and co-founder of PernixData. Justin Warren, another delegate, asked the seemingly simple question of whether you could use external flash as cache for a cluster (or clusters) using PernixData’s FVP. Satyam’s answer was a somewhat surprising “yes.”

I thought (once Justin mentioned it) that this was an obvious idea, albeit somewhat niche, and having worked to get scheduled downtime for a hundred servers on several instances in the past year, I could imagine why I might not want to (or be able to) shut down 100 hypervisor blades to install flash into them. If I could put a pile of flash into one or more centrally accessible, high speed/relatively low latency (compared to spinning disk) hosts, or perhaps bring in something like Fusion-io’s Ion Accelerator platform.

I took a bit of ribbing from a couple of other delegates, who didn’t see any situation where this would be useful. You always have plenty of extra spare hypervisor capacity, and flash that can go into those servers, and time and human resources to handle the upgrades, right? If so, I mildly envy you.

So what’s this about Invicta?

Cisco’s UCS Invicta platform (the evolution of WHIPTAIL) is a flash block storage platform based on a Cisco UCS C240-M3S rackmount server with 24 consumer-grade MLC SSD drives. Today its official placement is as a standalone device, managed by Cisco UCS Director, serving FC to UCS servers. The party line is that using it with any other platform or infrastructure is off-label.

I’ve watched a couple of presentations on the Invicta play. It hasn’t yet been clear how Cisco sees it playing against similar products in the market (i.e. Fusion-io Ion Accelerator). When I asked on a couple of occasions on public presentations, the comparison was reduced to Fusion-io ioScale/ioDrive PCIe cards, which is neither a fair, nor an applicable, comparison. You wouldn’t compare Coho Data arrays to single SSD enclosures. So for a month or so I’ve been stuck with the logical progression:

  1. Flash is fast
  2. ???
  3. Buy UCS and Invicta

Last month, word came out that Cisco was selling Invicta arrays against Pure Storage and EMC XtremIO, for heterogeneous environments, which also seems similar to the market for Ion Accelerator. Maybe I called it in the air. Who knows? The platform finally made sense in the present though.

Two great tastes that taste great together?

Wednesday afternoon I started putting the pieces together. Today you can serve up an Invicta appliance as block storage, and probably (I haven’t validated this) access it from a host or hosts running PernixData’s FVP. You’re either dealing with FC or possibly iSCSI. It will serve as well as the competing flash appliances.

But when Cisco gets Invicta integrated into the UCS infrastructure, hopefully with native support for iSCSI and FCoE traffic, you’ll be talking about 10 gigabit connections within the Fabric Interconnect for cache access. You’ll be benefiting from the built-in redundancy, virtual interface mapping and pinning, and control from UCS Manager/UCS Central. You’re keeping your cache within a rack or pod. And if you need to expand the cache you won’t need to open up any of your servers or take them down. You’d be able to put another Invicta system in, map it in, and use it just as the first one is being used.

If you’re not in a Cisco UCS environment, it looks like you could still use Invicta arrays, or Fusion-io, or other pure flash players (even something like a whitebox or channel partner Nexenta array, at least for proof-of-concept).

So where do we go from here?

The pure UCS integration for Invicta is obviously on the long-term roadmap, and hopefully the business units involved see the benefits of true integration at the FI level and move that forward soon.

I’m hoping to get my hands on a trial of FVP, one way or another, and possibly build a small flash appliance in my lab as well as putting some SSDs in my C6100 hypervisor boxes.

It would be interesting to compare the benefits of the internal vs external flash integration, with a conventional 10GBE (non-converged) network. This could provide some insight into a mid-market bolt-on solution, and give some further enlightenment on when and why you might take this option over internal flash. I know that I won’t be able to put a PCIe flash card into my C6100s, unless I give up 10GBE (one PCIe slot per server, darn). Although with FVP’s newly-announced network compression, that might be viable.

What are your thoughts on external server-side cache? Do you think something like this would be useful in an environment you’ve worked with? Feel free to chime in on the comments section below.

This is a post related to Storage Field Day 5, the independent influencer event being held in Silicon Valley April 23-25, 2014. As a delegate to SFD5, I am chosen by the Tech Field Day community and my travel and expenses are covered by Gestalt IT. I am not required to write about any sponsoring vendor, nor is my content reviewed. No compensation has been or will be received for this or other Tech Field Day post. I am a Cisco Champion but all Cisco information below is public knowledge and was received in public channels.

FirmwareGate and FCoEgate two months later

I was surprised last week at Interop to hear people still talking about both FCoEgate and HP FirmwareGate. It seems that in the absence of any clarity or resolution, both still bother many in the industry.

For those of you who missed the early February drama (and my relevant blog post):

FCoE-gate

FCoEgate: An analyst group called The Evaluator Group released a “seriously flawed” competitive comparison between an HP/Brocade/FC environment and a Cisco/FCoE environment. Several technical inquiries were answered with confusing evidence that the testers didn’t really know what they were doing.

Several people I talked to at Interop mentioned that this was a perfectly understandable mistake for a newbie analyst, but experienced analysts should have known better. Brocade should have known better as well, but I believe they still stand by the story.

The take-home from this effort is that if you don’t know how to configure a product or technology, and you don’t know how it works, it may not perform optimally in comparison to the one you’re being paid to show off.

This one doesn’t affect me as much personally, but I’ll note that there doesn’t seem to have been a clear resolution of the flaws in this report. Brocade has no reason to pay Evaluator Group to redo a valid comparison, and technologists worth their salt would see through it anyway (as many have). So we have to count on that latter part.

FirmwareGate

FirmwareGate: HP’s server division announced that, for the good of their “Customers For Life,” they would stop making server firmware available unless it was “safety and security” updates. How can you tell if it’s “safety and security?” Try to download it.

HP claimed repeatedly that this brings them in line with “industry best practices,” thus defining their “industry” as consisting exclusively of HP and Oracle. I don’t know any working technologists who would go along with that definition.

HP promised clarification on this, and defended their policy change by declaring industry standard x86/x64 servers as equivalent to commercial operating system releases and Cisco routers.

They even had a conversation with my friend John Obeto, wherein they convinced him that nothing had changed. Ah, if only this were true. (It isn’t.)

But I had fleeting faith that maybe they’d fixed the problem. So I went to get the firmware update for a nearly 2-year-old Microserver N40L, which had a critical firmware bug keeping it from installing a couple of current OSes. Turns out it’s not a “safety and security” fix, and my system apparently came with a one year warranty.

So if I wanted to run a current Windows OS, I either have to spend more on the support contract than I did on the server (if I can find the support contract anymore), or go with an aftermarket third party reverse-engineered firmware (which, unlike HP’s offerings actually enhances functionality and adds value).

Or I can go with the option that I suspect I and many other hobbyists, home lab users, influencers, and recommenders will — simply purchase servers by companies that respect their customers.

What should HP be doing instead?

The “industry best practices” HP should be subscribing to include open access to industry standard server firmware that fixes bugs they delivered, not just vaguely declared “safety and security” upgrades, much as every other industry standard server vendor except Oracle does. That includes Dell, Cisco, Supermicro, Fujitsu, NEC, Lenovo/IBM, and probably a number of other smaller players.

As my friend Howard Marks noted, some of us would be satisfied with a software-only or firmware-only support contract. On-site hardware maintenance isn’t necessary or even affordable for many of us. Many of us who buy used servers would be better off buying an extra server for parts, and most of us buying used servers know how to replace a part or swap out a server. Some of us even better than the vendor’s field engineers.

HP has been silent on this matter for over a month now, as far as I can tell. The “Master Technologists” from HP who won’t distinguish an MDS router from an x86 server have gone silent. And I’m sure many of the “customers for life” that the 30-year HP veteran graciously invites to keep buying support contracts will start looking around if there’s not a critical feature in HP servers that they need.

So where do we go from here?

I can no longer advocate HP servers for people with budgets containing fewer than 2 commas, and even for those I’d suggest thinking about what’s next. There are analogous or better options out there from Dell, Cisco, Supermicro, Fujitsu, NEC, Lenovo, and for the smaller lab form factors, Intel, Gigabyte, Shuttle, and others. (It’s also worth noting that most of those also provide fully functional remote management without an extra license cost as well.)

If you do want to go with HP, or if you can’t replace your current homelab investment, there are ways to find firmware out there (as there has been in the past for Sun^wOracle Solaris). It took me about 15 minutes to find the newly-locked-down Microserver firmware, for example. It didn’t even require a torrent. I can’t advocate that path, as there may be legal, ethical, and safety concerns, but it might be better than going without, at least until you can replace your servers.

And I’ve replaced most of my HP servers in the lab with Dell servers. One more to go. If anyone wants to buy a couple of orphaned DL servers in Silicon Valley (maybe for parts), contact me.

If anyone else has seen any clarity or correction in the state of FCoEgate or FirmwareGate in the last month or so, let me know in the comments. I’d love to be wrong.

Interop Las Vegas 2014 – Highlights, Lowlights, Footlights

I’m back from a week in Las Vegas for the annual Interop convention. Had some great conversations with vendors and technologists, got punched by Mark Twain, and graduated to the next level of mLife. I’ll have more to talk about in the next weeks, but I wanted to share some summary thoughts for those of you who are curious.

Disclosure: I attended Interop on a media/blogger pass, which was provided at no cost to myself, under the auspices of Tech Field Day. However, travel and incidentals were out of my own pocket, and aside from some trinkets that were offered to everyone in the expo, I have received no valuable consideration from any of the companies mentioned in this post. If this changes, I will advise in future articles.

My other coverage: “A Context For Cloud” covering my interpretations of Adrian Cockcroft’s Cloud Connect Summit opening keynote.

Good Stuff, Maynard

I’ve written before about how obnoxious the badge scanners can be at trade shows. This year’s Interop brought (I believe) a new feature that almost makes the scanners worthwhile — a trip report summarizing my event contacts and sessions. As I was leaving Las Vegas, I got an email that pointed me to a listing of my Interop sessions, surveys for the ones I hadn’t filled out, and the exhibitors who scanned my badge (or at least most of them… the list seems short, but some of the vendors were polite about not scanning–especially the ones I already communicate with weekly). I hope that other conventions like Cisco Live and VMworld add this functionality as well.

2014-04-01 11.37.07The Media Lounge was well-appointed, fiercely guarded by the incredible UBM PR team, populated with coffee, very edible breakfast and lunch at appropriate times, electricity and network connectivity, and except for the UNLV marching band incident, relatively quiet. It even featured a Bay Networks-branded Netgear dual-speed hub.

The best swag of the event (for me) is probably a tie between the Backupify Travel Hoodie Pillow and the 15% Off coupon for the new Linksys WRT1900AC.

The best physical technology I saw at the event would be the 16GB DDR3 SODIMM from Memphis Electronic, the Linksys WRT1900AC (luckily the big one isn’t the one that’s shipping next week), and the new Shuttle DS81 (Haswell compact system with dual 4k) video.

The best soft topics I saw included Circle Technology’s Circle Host/Circle Viewer private network screen share technology and Synology’s DSM 5.0 Central Management System.

And unrelated to Interop, I got notification on April 1 (seriously) that I was selected again as a VMware vExpert for 2014-2015. I continue to feel humbled and honored by this designation, and I hope to continue to provide useful contributions to the POHO community around virtualization technology.

Not So Good Stuff, Maynard

I’ll admit the first shock I got was the “Airline Chicken” in the media room at lunch. Several of the other folks in the room and I were concerned about an association between food and airplanes, having eaten on airplanes before. However, Meredith Corley from UBM Tech PR helped us get over that concern by looking up the worrisome product. It wasn’t so worrisome after all.

We did see a couple of “unclear on the concept” moments during the Expo, especially around “sponsorship” of refreshments. I believe Verisign “sponsored” the welcome reception on Tuesday, which made it possible for us to have cans of soda for only $4.25 each. Spiceworks apparently “sponsored” the coffee stand at the entrance, again with the $5 beverages. In the future, I’d suggest finding a different term, or perhaps making it clear how to take advantage of the sponsorship. Even the hotel only wanted $3.25 for a 20oz bottle of soda, and that’s not even sponsored.

And unrelated to Interop itself, I will restate that I hate hotel pillows.

One suggestion I will throw out there… if it would be possible to have lockers for media/bloggers (if not for everyone), so that we can leave laptops securely stowed during Expo and evening events without going all the way back to the hotel, that would be a welcome enhancement. I do think next year I will probably stay in the Mandalay Bay hotel, to optimize mLife points and minimize commute.

All things considered, not much to complain about.

Things to watch for

I had good conversations with a couple of vendors during the event.

Check out the links in this graf for each company’s Tech Field Day presentations.

I also had a charming conversation about security and network compliance and Doctor Who with Andy Williams, Nicola Whiting, and Ian Whiting of Titania. They have a compelling product line for auditing network device configurations, and weren’t too shocked that Rowan Atkinson was my Doctor.

So where do we go from here?

Well, for me, I’m catching up on a week’s email and then headed back to Las Vegas on Friday to work on some work stuff (seriously). No rest for the wicked, and PTO never seems to reduce the backlog of work.

Coming up in about 2 weeks is Storage Field Day 5 featuring Diablo Technologies, EMC, PernixData, Sandisk, Solidfire, Veeam, and X-Io. I’ve threatened to blog more from this event, although I’ll also be providing realtime feedback and twitter analysis as usual.

If you think I left out a highlight of Interop, or if you’d like to share your feedback, the comments are open. Hope to hear from you down there.

In Praise Of Microsoft Store, or, To QHD And Back Again (Another Laptop Journey)

There are two pieces of information that will inform this article, and I’ll get them out there first.

One, I’m not a Microsoft fanboy. My favorite MS products are still the 16KB expansion card for the Apple ][+ and a selection of their keyboard and mouse options. I liked Windows 2000, Windows XP, and Windows 7, and when each was current it was my daily driver OS for the most part. But I’m usually no more likely to advocate them than I am any other jumbo company.

Two, I probably buy more laptops than you do. As in, personally purchasing out of my own pocket (not IT department purchases). Probably twenty in the last 14 months. These ranged from old HP “thin client” laptops to play with, to my current daily driver, the ASUS Zenbook UX32VD I talked about in my Pitfalls blog post last August (more toward the cheaper side of course). I’ve agonized over details of some (like the Zenbook) and just thrown the cash down on others (like the thin clients or some other cheaper ones). So I’ve been through the process before.

You already want another laptop? And what’s QHD?

So I’ve been thinking about upgrading the daily driver role again. I went from a very heavy but very powerful Sony VAIO with 16GB ram, 4c/8t, 1080p display, USB3… to the Zenbook with 10GB ram, 2c/4t, 1080p display, USB3, and about half the mass/weight. But I’d like to get that memory back up there, and add some real estate, and get rid of the proprietary third display connector while keeping discrete graphics. Getting a 1920×1200 (WUXGA+) display requires 17″ LCD and/or Core2 processor, neither of which is optimal, so I have to look larger. I did pick up a 1920×1200 Macbook Pro last year, but it’s limited to 6-8GB of RAM and has a Core 2 processor.

QHD, for those among you not familiar, is “quad high definition,” generally 2560×1440, WQHD, or 4x 720p. There’s WQXGA+, which is 3200×1800, which also gets called QHD or QHD+, which is 4x 1600×900. Don’t confuse this with lower-case-q qHD, which is a 960×540 standard, a quarter of 1080p resolution. I’m okay with 2560×1440 or 3200×1800 or anything in that range, to be honest.

QHD? Could you spell that?

As an aside, I go to Fry’s a couple of times a week, as I live a mile from one store and work 3 blocks from another, so I just do. One time I wandered around looking at laptops and one of the helpful but useless sales associates asked if he could help. “Yes,” I said, “I’m looking for a QHD laptop, you know, 2600×1800 or so resolution?” He scrambled for a piece of paper to write on, asking me to spell Q-H-D, and then handing me off to another sales associate who told me what I’d already discovered–they didn’t carry any such devices.

So I’ve been browsing the web every so often, searching eBay for Precision M6500 (17″ 1920×1200 with 32GB capacity and first gen i7 processors), looking at other retailers when I’m in their laptop sections, and pondering what to do when the urge to upgrade finally takes over. I don’t really have to explain the decision to my significant other, although she wonders why I need a new laptop in less than five years.

The first three I found online were

  • Fujitsu Lifebook u904, an i7-4600U with 14″ 3200×1800 display, 10GB max RAM like my current ultrabook, 802.11abgn; $2154 with 4GB RAM from shopfujitsu.com.
  • Dell XPS15 6842sLV, which has an i7-4702HQ, 15.6″ 3200×1880  display, 802.11ac, and 16GB max RAM; $1766 used with 16GB RAM from Amazon.com
  • IBMLenovo Thinkpad W540 with i7-4700MQ, 15.5″ 2880×1620, 802.11ac, and support for 32GB on the quad-core models. $1830 with 16GB from lenovo.com

Yeah, that’s kinda pricy, but I’m looking for what turns out to be workstation-class hardware, not pure 720p ultrabook.

I suspect I’d do nicely with either of the 15″ displays, but as you might guess, I’m nervous about buying into a product line I’ve never touched or seen in person, especially when it’d set me back $2000.

So I just kept looking, and asked around on Twitter about any Bay Area retail or showcase options. Jake Ludington came up with a good suggestion, just about the time Google found a hint to the same effect.

So, having had an uneventful morning, I headed out to the Microsoft retail store at Valley Fair.

Microsoft Store? What’chu talking about, Willis?

Here’s where I used to be a little bit critical, and some of my friends downright ridiculed the idea. Apple has their retail thing down cold pretty much after 13 years… you can find Apple Stores all over the place and go in and see what they want you to buy.  You can talk to a person whose boss has declared him or her a “Genius(tm),” in much the same sense as some companies declare all their managers “Leaders(tm).” And you can buy one of their preconfigured options for a laptop.

Microsoft started opening up their own retail stores almost five years ago. They’re not quite the same, as Microsoft doesn’t manufacture/brand a whole lot of systems. So instead of the company’s hardware, software, and blessed accessories, you get a lot more partner products. For example, alongside the Surface tablet line you’ll see Nokia and Dell tablets. Next row over, you’ll find laptops and ultrabooks and convertibles from Samsung, Acer, Dell, HP, ASUS, and probably some I forgot about. There’s a corner for XBox (including Disney Infinity), a corner for accessories and gadgets, and a display section for Windows Phone. And you’ll find “Technical Advisors” available to help you… a bit more down-to-earth ranking, I’d say. 

Those of you who were in San Francisco around the turn of the century may remember the Microsoft store on the second floor at Metreon, and the XBox Store on the first floor. It’s like that, but combined and a lot more focused, and there are 60+ of them in North America.

Some people joke that the Apple Store is filled to the gills with customers, whereas the Microsoft Store has 3-5 sales associates for each customer. That was probably true five years ago. But I’d guess the buying-customer to browsing-customer ratio is higher under the four-colored logo. It’s seemed that way each time I’ve been in the Microsoft Store.

So how’d your visit go?

It was actually pretty good. The store has tables set up like the Apple Store, with a couple of demo products on either side. There are stools for you to sit on while you try out the devices, which is a nice touch… unless you use a standing desk you won’t get a feel for the keyboard and display without sitting down and relaxing a bit.

The labeling of the laptops was concise and easily compared. Some models had multiple sample devices out. I tried four models that mostly met my requirements:

  • Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus, a 13.3″ i5 with 8GB RAM/128GB SSD and 802.11n for $1449. The i7 with 256GB SSD is listed on their site for $1599.
  • Acer Aspire S7, a 13.3″ i7 with 8GB RAM/256GB SSD and 802.11n for $1499
  • Dell XPS 15, a 15.6″ i7 with 16GB RAM/512GB SSD and 802.11ac for $2299
  • HP Envy Touch 14, a 14.0″ i5 with 8GB RAM/500GB SATA and 802.11ac as well as 200MB/mo free mobile broadband, for $899

(The links above are to approximate analogues on Amazon; there are a lot of configurations and they don’t always match with what’s in retail locations or microsoftstore.com.)

The machines were all logged in to a regular user account (Device Manager warned me about this on each system), wireless was working, and I was able to check out the details without sales reps acting like I was trying to stick my tongue in the USB ports.

I probably could’ve stayed longer, and there was one idle sales rep of about half a dozen who was available should I have any questions. However, I was fully aware that I wouldn’t be making a purchase today. Even if I were, I’d have done my own research (probably on one one of the sample laptops) before engaging the staff, but they seemed friendly and reachable despite my not befriending or reaching for them.

So I just got the stand-out details tapped into my Evernote client on Android, and even disqualified one of the machines because it had a very weird keyboard (the Aspire S7 has some weird keyboard features including Caps Lock sharing its traditional space with the backtick/tilde key)

Then I wandered around looking at what else was available. There was a Surface Music Kit cover on display which, while not set up with the app, looked pretty cool. Lots of tablets were present, including my 2-in-1 ASUS T100TA and the Dell Venue 8 (Pro, I think).  The staff were smiling but not creepily so, and thanked me for visiting when I left to find some caffeine.

So where do you go from here?

Well… as I mentioned, I am not buying just yet. So I have some time for absurd amounts of research, review-reading, comparison shopping, maybe even looking into fan/rumor sites to see what’s coming out in the next four weeks.

I may head back in to look into any other interests or concerns I have during the research phase; it seems like the odds of the model systems being functional and available are higher there than at most consumer electronics stores I visit (hi Best Buy, Fry’s). And I can give the sales associates a chance to show their chops in terms of customer experience with the QHD laptops.

But assuming the prices aren’t that different from competitors and the specs I want are available, I’d be happy to head back to the Microsoft Store to buy my next laptop.

If you’ve had an experience buying a laptop at a Microsoft Store, or have recommendations or warnings about QHD/WQHD/QHD+ display laptops, feel free to chime in on the comments below. I’m especially interested in anything with 32GB memory capacity, and I’ll be digging deeper into specs in the near future.  I’ll keep you posted as my search progresses.

Disclaimer: I’ve received no consideration or influence from Microsoft on this post. I’ve not yet spent even a penny at a Microsoft Store. Although I wouldn’t turn down promo codes or coupons of course.