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EMC denies big server biz plans ... but IS building servers

Embedded ones, true, but what's wrong with off-the-shelf hardness?

EMC has always maintained that it is not is in the server business, but now it is developing servers – albeit to go into its arrays and run application software inside VM containers.

At EMC World in Las Vegas, the company once again strongly refuted suggestions that it was entering the general server business. In fact, it is building servers to run apps in its arrays that need to be close to storage. Two of these were shown by its hardware engineering director, Rob Valentine, in a so-called Area 51 presentation by chief marketing officer Jeremy Burton on Tuesday as part of EMC's Vegas show.

There were two kinds of server hardware shown on the stage. One looked like a blade server, with two in a 4U box, and the other a 1U micro-server, possibly an eight of a rack shelf in width, being like a smallish shoe box with cables connected to one end. We understand it has a quad-core X86 processor, 1GB of RAM and a PCIe SLIC I/O card. We could possibly envisage it being mounted vertically to provide a very dense compute rack footprint.

El Reg was impressed that EMC has devoted hardware engineering resources to developing its own servers rather than using commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware. Why would it do that? It has to be serious about putting servers in arrays to go to these lengths.

EMC arrays running apps

On Monday, Pat Gelsinger, EMC's COO for its information infrastructure products, said EMC's main arrays would all be capable of running applications inside two years, meaning they will have server engines inside them as well as their controllers. The applications would be inside virtual machines (VMs), and the array operating software would also be made available in VMs as well, virtual storage appliance versions of the array software.

This opens up a possible prospect an an EMC array shipping with extra server engines and license-only upgrades causing clones of the array software to be booted in some of the extra servers.

In a Q & A session, Rich Napolitano, EMC's unified storage division president, said EMC had no intentions of getting into the general server business. The VMAX, VNX and Isilon arrays would run applications that needed to be as close as possible to the storage so as get very low latency I/Os.

Jeremy Burton said in an interview the 1U server could be used as a head unit inside the array and you could "run VMs in [a] incredibly dense compute [environment]". He discussed a concept of two rows of eight servers inside the array, 16 servers in total.

He observed: "Server vendors put DAS (direct-attached storage) in servers. Storage vendors put compute in storage. Over time these hybrid configurations will get more workloads."

Burton agreed the VM is just a container, an app container. VMs in storage could run general apps, when necessary, using vMotion to move them in and out of the array. Burton said VMware gives them an encapsulation door, according to him just one reason "why our 80 per cent investment in VMware is a strategic investment".

Servers? So what?

The idea of EMC becoming a server vendor is highly sensitive, as EMC has a close relationship with Cisco concerning the use of its UCS servers and Nexus switches in the VCE Vblocks. Sticking servers in the VMAX, VNX and Isilon arrays is a relatively small move into an adjacent market, that of running apps needing a close storage location.

(Incidentally, Hitachi Data Systems might think the same thoughts, and consider putting Hitachi servers inside its VSP and HUS arrays.)

EMC offering general purpose servers is another matter entirely. It's not that this would piss off Dell, HP and IBM; EMC could care less about that, but that EMC has no server track record and would face strong competing suppliers. Softly, softly, catch the server monkey, and putting embedded servers in the arrays is a softly, softly approach.

Cisco will be the supplier who knows where this could go and be potentially concerned about its server monopoly in Vblocks getting weakened. It is already working with NetApp on Flexpods. A crucial sign of any Cisco discontent with EMC's server move would be any provision of pre-built FlexPod systems by a Cisco/NetApp channel. In other words, Vblocks built by another organisation that would use NetApp storage instead of EMC's.

There is no sign of this happening, but who knows what could happen once EMC arrays get servers embedded in them that could – thanks to VMware – function as general purpose servers as well. After all, a server is a server is a server, especially a virtualised server. ®

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