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Freak lightning strike sends app, storage servers back in time

EMC hits 88MPH, returns to mainframe era

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Server vendors, prepare for an attack. Lightning strikes are coming - and they're welding app and storage boxes together in a way that reminds El Reg of the mainframe era.

EMC's array-controlled server flash initiative, Project Lightning, is getting ready. There may be announcement before Christmas, but it won't be a happy Christmas for the server vendors - not if what El Reg has put together from hints, nods and whispers is true.

Consider what will happen if server apps can get data from storage arrays in nanoseconds instead of milliseconds: instead of data being fetched from a VNX or VMAX, or even Isilon, array across a SAN fabric with slow delivery due to disk latency and fabric transit time, it is available pretty damn well instantly, directly across the server's PCIe bus from flash memory.

Because, in some secret sauce fashion, the array knows what data the application is going to need and pre-loads the flash using FAST-VP. Data that's written goes into flash and the app can carry on working while a background process copies it to disk back in the array. To be more certain it's safe to do this, Lightning flash cards can be dual'ed and mirrored.

Faster apps need fewer servers

The net of this is that an application's run time could be halved, even quartered; it depends how I/O-bound it is. Customers could then say to themselves: "Okay, we have saved 50 per cent - for argument's sake - of our server application suite's run time. What shall we do with this recovered server resource?

"We could double the virtual machine density of our servers, and cut their number in half, or we could use servers with half the processing power; two-socket ones instead of four-socket ones."

Either way the server suppliers will take a hit and so will software suppliers who license by processor core; fewer processors and cores will be needed. EMC isn't a server vendor and its revenues won't be affected. The main server vendors - Dell, HP and IBM - don't have technology that can do what Project Lightning does because their arrays can't manage the server flash as Project Lightning does.

The end-game here is to weaken the server vendors and then, as storage and servers become progressively more and more co-located while the SAN becomes a server-area network (or DAN in Fujitsu's terms) instead of a storage area network, we will see VMAX arrays with extra engines to run app software. This could be 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, even 128 extra engines, who knows how many, with a speeded up Virtual Matrix taking care of the server-storage inter-linking and - is this a master stroke or what? - the app engines being equipped with Lightning flash cards, and everything running in an ESX-managed environment.

Is this real or just a fevered tech-obsessed hack's fantasy?

You better believe it

EMC is pushing the converged IT stack game and has been open about its arrays running app software and about the Lightning server flash effort. Why else is it doing this? This is not a company that commits suicide; seppuku is not in its game plan.

Yet the direction of VMware's storage function development is towards commoditised networked storage arrays, EMC's included, and we've been wondering if EMC will cripple this part of VMware or somehow evade the VMware trap that threatens every networked storage array vendor.

This is how: EMC's strategy people are saying, in effect, let standalone networked storage array vendors (the block-heads and the filer guys) fall into the VMware trap, because we will circle around it and use VMware to transition apps from running in standalone servers into server-storage powerhouses - or mainframes as people used to call them - and run apps faster than anyone else - Oracle, IBM, whoever. We'll evade the VMware trap laying in wait for storage array vendors, EMC's chiefs say, and instead use it to attack the server vendors.

It's a breathtaking idea and will, if it succeeds, propel EMC into the big-time, an equal in revenue terms to the server vendors. How about that? ®

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