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Inside the mind of EMC: Is storage just a launchpad?

I wanna be a data centre contender ...

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Blocks and Files: It's a vision thing: EMC was a storage company and is an information company, but in the next decade it looks like it will be a data centre infrastructure company.

This thought comes from a parsing of two Pat Gelsinger replies to an interview with EMC's Mark Twomey, otherwise known as the blogger Storagezilla.

Reply number one was to the question "Between VMware, revenue leadership in Backup & Recovery from BRS and analytics from Greenplum is EMC still a storage company?" and here it is:

Going forward EMC wants to be the most disruptive data centre infrastructure company in our industry. While today storage is our centre and our heritage, we’ve just shipped a new storage offering with VFCache and announced another with Thunder, increasingly virtualisation, security, management and analytics will complement that foundation to give us a broad data centre footprint.

Hold this in your mind while we look at reply number two in answer to the question: "To you what does the competitive field look like?":

In some ways, no real change from the usual. NetApp, Hitachi, Dell, HP and so on but we do see two new areas of threat in storage. One is Huawei, the other is the bevy of Flash startups. We’ve spent time looking at them both. Beyond those we see that to be the leader in the data centre market we will be competing with bigger and broader IT players in the future.

Huawei and Flash are the new areas of threat for EMC in storage. Huawei is a well-funded and determined Chinese storage supplier that has just bought out Huawei-Symantec, exiting the US in the process, and is, in the telecommunications area, something of a Chinese version of Cisco, and Cisco is concerned about Huawei as well.

The Fibre Channel drive array mammoths are about to enter the deep freeze

For EMC, Huawei will be a competitor roughly analogous to HP, having servers, storage and networking and the ability to integrate them and extract synergies.

Flash is going to be the means to store primary data and get it shipped to servers faster than any other mainstream storage technology. I believe EMC thinks that flash will also become storage memory in servers and, as such, is likely to be sold primarily by server vendors. It will be software that will be a key technology here, with the ability to read and write data by applications in DRAM to data containers in storage memory (flash) without going through the host O/S' disk-based I/O subsystem, looking to be a huge latency reduction factor.

Atomic writes

Two articles on atomic writes from the Wikibon consultancy – here and here – together with Fusion-io's Auto-Commit Memory illustrate this line of thought.

The logical conclusion of this line of thought is that the long period of dominance in which primary data – both block and file – was stored in networked drive arrays is coming to an end. Disk drive arrays will become capacity vaults that protect and feed the flash stores. The Fibre Channel drive array mammoths are about to enter the deep freeze and primary data is going to be co-located with the servers whose apps process and generate that data.

One more jump needs to be made. The atomic write, bypassing the O/S IO subsystem idea, is between an app in a server's DRAM and a data area in direct-attached server memory: DAS flash in other words. We're looking forward to shareable flash arrays networked to servers by InfiniBand or some form of PCIe IO virtualisation. In that case the networked flash array can form all or part of a server's storage memory, given that latency is low enough, and a server app's atomic writes can be made to shared flash storage memory and not just to direct-attach storage memory.

Whichever supplier pulls this off and provides shareable storage memory arrays between servers – such that vMotion and the equivalents from other hypervisors becomes easily achievable – and also manages to hook the storage memory up to back-end disk drive arrays for data protection and wide area network data sharing, will be in a very strong position.

VMAXalytics and VMAXalogic

Back to the Gelsinger replies. First of all, this one: "To be the leader in the data centre market we will be competing with bigger and broader IT players in the future" – meaning the server-system vendors, like Oracle.

Secondly: "EMC wants to be the most disruptive data centre infrastructure company in our industry ... increasingly virtualisation, security, management and analytics will complement that foundation to give us a broad data centre footprint."

EMC cannot compete with companies like Oracle and the server-system companies like HP which are busy developing integrated stacks – let alone compete with Huawei – without developing its own integrated stack offerings. Of course it is doing this with VCE, which is really a partnership between EMC and Cisco, EMC owning 80 per cent of VMware.

Now let's try putting EMC's current and future lego blocks together with all this in mind. Cisco can provide the networking and servers and EMC the shared PCIe-speed capable flash arrays (Project Thunder). VMware, meanwhile, can offer the atomic write capability in flash super-charged Vblocks with VMAX, VNX or Isilon arrays for large-scale block and scale-out file and big data storage. The Oracle strategists have got to be assuming that VCE is going to bring out VMAXalytics- or VMAXalogic-type converged stack boxes to compete with their own Exalytics and Exalogic-engineered systems.

The Oracle strategists have got to be assuming that VCE is going to bring out VMAXalytics or VMAXalogic type converged stack boxes

What EMC is doing is using storage as a launchpad to vault up into the same data centre supplier rankings as HP, IBM and Oracle.

What does this mean for other storage suppliers?

The worrying kind

Strategists and chief technology officers (CTO) will be concerned that this will mark a seismic shift in the data centre and that the era of the stand-alone storage supplier is coming to an end. The stand-alone storage suppliers have got to get deep into the converged stack platform business or face the same fate as mammoths and sabre tooth tigers.

Customers are going to buy storage as part of a system, like a car, and not as their own selected and integrated best-of-breed parts. Of course they might rent the system – from the cloud data centre equivalent of Hertz and Avis rent-a-car – but that doesn't alter the basic fact.

Less paranoid CTOs and strategists will say: "Nonsense. Data centres are not like a car fleet. Enterprise customers will always go for best-of-breed because of the total cost of ownership advantages, performance and manageability advantages, etc."

Will they? What if a flash super-charged Exalogic/Exalyics/Database appliance box is best of breed, and makes better use of its component software, server and storage resources than any bolted-together, DIY stack created by an enterprise or even a FlexPod-type consortium?

We're in the realm of don't know/can't know for now, but one thing is for sure: if flash super-charged servers doing atomic writes run 10 times more virtual machines than current servers and are affordable, then customers are going to buy them. End of. And that will stimulate the end of the primary data-storing drive array as we know it.

So Mr Storage Supplier, are you going to crash the flash super-charged server party like EMC is doing, or will you sit this seismic shift out? Careful – you could be betting the future of your company. ®

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