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IBM storage crew: Why bury your BEST kit at the back of the larder?

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Storagebod El Reg storage man Chris Mellor’s pieces on IBM’s storage revenues here and here make for some interesting reading. Things are not looking great with the exception of XIV and Storwize products.

I am not sure whether Mellor’s analysis is entirely correct as it is hard to get any granularity from IBM. But his take on Big Blue doesn’t surprise me either, as there are some serious weaknesses in IBM’s storage portfolio.

Firstly, there is still an awful lot of OEMed kit from NetApp in the Big Blue's portfolio - and it certainly appears that this is not selling, or being sold, as well as it had done in the past. So IBM’s struggles have some interesting knock-on effects for NetApp.

IBM is certainly positioning the Storwize products in the space which was traditionally occupied by the OEMed LSI (now NetApp) arrays; pricing is pretty aggressive and places them firmly in the space occupied by other competing dual-head arrays. And it finally has a feature set to match their competitors. Well, certainly in the block space.

XIV seems to compete pretty well when put up against the lower-end VMAX and HDS “enterprise-class” arrays. It is incredibly easy to manage and performs well enough, although it isn't the right platform for the most demanding applications. IBM have, however, grasped one of the underlying issues with storage today; that it all needs to be simplified. I still have some doubts about the architecture but XIV has tried to solve the spindle-to-gigabyte issue.

There is no doubt in my mind that traditional RAID-5 and 6 are (long-term) broken. If not today, very soon. The introduction of SSDs into the architecture appears to have removed some of its more interesting performance characteristics. XIV is a classic example of “good enough”.

Overlapping products: Why compete against yourself?

So IBM have some good products, from the low-end to the lowish-enterprise block space. Of course, there is an issue in that they seriously overlap - nothing new there, though I’ve never known a company compete against itself so often.

DS8K only really survives for one reason: to support the mainframe. If IBM had been sensible and had the foresight to do so, they would have looked at FiCon connectivity for SVC and done that. Instead, IBM decided that the mainframe customers were so conservative that they would never accept a new product - or it would have taken 10 years or so for them to do so. So now they are going to end up building and supporting the DS8K range for another 10 years, at least. If they’d invested the time earlier, they could be considering phasing out the DS8K.

But where IBM really suffers and struggles is in the NAS space. They’ve had abortive attempts at building their own products - they re-sell NetApp in the form of nSeries these days, and also have SONAS/V7000-Unified.

Well the nSeries is NetApp: it gets all of the advantages and disadvantages that brings, ie, a great product whose best days seem behind it at present. SONAS/V7000-Unified are not really happening for IBM; although built on solid foundations, the delivery has not been there and IBM really have no idea how to market or sell the product. There have been some quality issues and, arguably, the V7000-Unified was not thought all the way through. I mean, who thought a two-node General Parallel File System (GPFS) cluster was ever a good idea for a production system?

Go ahead, boast: It's a GREAT product

And that brings me onto my favourite IBM storage product: Yup, it's GPFS. This one I will laud to the hills; it's a howitzer of a product which will let you blow your feet off but also could be IBM’s edge. Yet in the decade-and-a-bit that I have been involved with it, IBM almost never sells it. Customers do buy it but really you have to know about it first; most IBM sales would have no idea where to start, nor even when it might be appropriate.

At the GPFS User Group this week I saw presentations on GPFS with OpenStack, Hadoop, hints of object-storage and more. But you will probably never hear an IBMer outside of a very select bunch talk about it. If IBM were EMC, you’d never hear them shut up about it.

One of the funniest things I heard at the GPFS User Group were the guys who repurposed an Isilon cluster as a GPFS cluster. It seems it might work very well.

I personally think it’s about time that IBM open-sourced GPFS and put it into the community. It’s too good not to, and perhaps the community could turn it into the core of a software-defined storage solution to shake a few people. I could build half-a-dozen interesting appliances tomorrow.

Still, I suspect, like Cinderella, GPFS will be stuck in the kitchen waiting for an invite to the ball. ®

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