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Is EMC developing storage super-stack?

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Comment The future of EMC's VNX line, currently a work in progress, is presaged by this week's launch of the VNXe - a more integrated system with a new operating system, VNOX, and very much simpler set up, provisioning, management and support facilities than the CLARiiON and Celerra source technologies.

A key background idea here is that storage is software, meaning it's a set of features and functionality running on commodity processor engines that, at bottom, read and write data to commodity storage enclosures filled with a choice of disk drives and solid state drives. It enables these storage resources to be used efficiently so as to meet block-access, file access and, hopefully, object storage access needs.

Storage personalities (an HP term) execute in storage engines, either dedicated X86 hardware or a virtual machine, and provide the storage resources needed by applications. The I/O channels coming into the storage array are also abstracted in some way so that the array can handle Fibre Channel, iSCSI, CIFS, NFS or object access coming in through a variety of wires and interface cards.

The actual storage resources are virtualised behind these storage personalities which, it goes without saying these days, are heavily integrated into VMware and may be into Hyper-V as well.

This means, at one extreme, that, in theory, you could take VNOX, the VNXe operating environment, and run it on any commodity X86 hardware connected to some drive enclosures.

Abstraction layers

Another VNOX idea is that there is an abstraction layer inside it that enables existing EMC storage functionality assets, such as RAID stacks, automated data tiering (FAST), replication and so forth, to be used. VNOX is a framework under which existing storage software assets could be integrated or, if required, new ones written.

EMC storage software assets from other product lines could be separated out and added into VNOX without affecting the existing VNOX storage features. It's a converged storage stack using some existing assets and not a 100 per cent ground-up new storage stack development.

The Unisphere management product is another one with some kind of internal abstraction layer. Underneath it are the sensing and controlling hooks into a storage product stack. Above it are the different ways the management capabilities are presented to the users.

VNXe users get a wizard-driven, application-focussed, we-do-it-for-you approach. VNX Storage Sysadmins get deeper and wider access to the storage products nuts and bolts so they can do the more detailed work required.

EMC storage technology possibilities

We could imagine the VNOX idea moving upstream into the VNX arrays with their separate processors running the CLARiiON Flare and Celerra Dart operating systems, such that Flare and Dart run under a VNOX abstraction layer which separates out file and block access requests and sends them to Flare and Dart subsystems for processing. The same idea could be used to implement a Centera object storage facility under a VNOX head.

Let's assume that you could then envisage a single storage pool underneath these three storage environments (Flare, Dart, Centera) which has three virtual pools, one for each environment, all of which are thinly provisioned, replicated, deduplicated, snapshotted, etc as required. Each of the three could also be further sub-divided into virtual pools for different applications (server apps) using the three main environments, with each virtual pool getting its own specific quality of service.

There is a strong possibility here of making very much more efficient use of processing and storage enclosure hardware resources by optimising their use across this enlarged set of storage environments. Yes, we still have storage silos but they are now virtual silos.

There must also be a strong possibility we will see storage Vblocks.

Finally, we think it is likely there is a push within EMC to provide a CLARiiON Flare environment on VMAX; there surely are enough Intel engines in VMAX to provide the processing power. That would provide a migration path for CLARiiON/VNX users needing more block-acccess storage.

Seen from this point of view VNX represents a fundamental change in EMC, away from physically silo'd products towards virtually silo'd storage facilities underneath an operating environment with abstraction layers enabling concurrent access of virtual silos in the same storage infrastructure, multiple types of I/O access, and a unified management layer offering various user levels of engagement and application optimisation.

We are seeing, I'd venture to suggest, the beginnings of a unified storage super stack emerging across EMC's disparate product lines. ®

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