EMC ships virtualization platform

By Heidi Biggar

At its annual Technology Summit in New Orleans last month, EMC announced that it will begin a “controlled rollout” of its highly publicized and widely anticipated fabric-based virtualization platform this summer. Analysts say EMC’s entry into the market has the potential to spur end-user adoption of the technology.

Formerly code-named “Storage Router,” the Invista virtualization platform will be available initially on EMC’s Connectrix-branded “intelligent” switch platforms OEM’d from Brocade and Cisco, with support for McData’s switches loosely slated for early 2006.

At the Storage Networking World (SNW) conference in April, McData announced that it had sidelined its blade virtualization strategy for a “hybrid” approach that the company says is just as easy to manage but has fewer “operational” (e.g., performance) issues. McData is developing a series of “appliance-like” modules, including one for virtualization, for its switches. Company officials say the Virtualization Services Module will be available later this year, with support for EMC’s Invista slated for early next year.

Todd Oseth, vice president of infrastructure at EMC, says the reason for the “controlled rollout” of the Invista platform is simple: The market is new, and the technology, though tested, is still relatively unfamiliar to users. Competitors, however, say the “controlled release” is nothing more than a controlled beta test.

In a survey of IT professionals conducted earlier this year by Goldman Sachs, 51% of the Fortune 1000 respondents said they were considering implementing storage virtualization products over the next 12 months. Of these respondents, 26% identified EMC as one of the top-two players in this space even though EMC was not shipping a virtualization product at the time the survey was conducted.

Users in the Goldman Sachs survey cited IBM (19% of respondents) as the other major player in storage virtualization. IBM has been shipping a blade implementation of its TotalStorage SAN Volume Controller (SVC) for Cisco’s MDS 9000 intelligent switches since December 2003 and a stand-alone SVC appliance since July 2003. Network Appliance, Sun, and Hitachi Data Systems were a distant third, fourth, and fifth, respectively, in the Goldman Sachs survey.

Network Appliance introduced its V-Series virtualization systems in March, and Sun stepped into the ring last month with the release of its StorEdge 6920 disk array, which, similar to Hitachi’s Tagma-Store Universal Storage Platform (USP), virtualizes storage on the back-end (array level). (Hitachi has been shipping its TagmaStore USP array since September 2004.) NetApp’s V-Series is capable of virtualizing data at both the block- and file-level under a common architecture; HDS’s USP can also be connected to NAS as well as to mainframes.

“The SAN-based virtualization market is essentially a new market,” says William Hurley, a senior analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) consulting firm, “but EMC’s Invista’s approach, which leverages existing fabric elements, will enable users to implement storage virtualization immediately [without making changes to the existing infrastructure].”

The fact that Invista can be integrated into existing infrastructures is a big plus for EMC, according to analysts. It should be noted that IBM’s blade implementation of SVC, which currently runs on Cisco’s MDS9000 platform, can also be integrated into existing environments with little disruption, as can virtualization products from smaller vendors such as StoreAge and Troika, according to Hurley.

“Virtualization products from vendors such as HDS, NetApp, and Sun require users to either deploy new SAN infrastructure or reconfigure existing SANs,” says Hurley. “These vendors provide a far more tightly coupled relationship between disk arrays and the virtualization element, which can complicate heterogeneous data movement.”

Charles King, senior analyst, application infrastructure, at the PUND-IT consulting firm, also believes EMC’s strategy will resonate with users. “Overall, I think EMC’s fabric-based approach will make a lot of sense for many enterprise customers. It delivers a model of virtualization that is significantly different from what Hitachi and IBM offer. If Invista performs as advertised, I expect it to give customers an entirely new way to approach virtualization and will give the competition a run for their money.”

EMC claims that Invista is more reliable than virtualization products that reside in the data path (e.g., HDS’s USP, NetApp’s V-Series, and Sun’s 6920), is more scalable, and is about 30% less expensive than a similarly configured IBM SVC appliance.

According to Claus Mikkelsen, HDS’s senior director of storage applications, Hitachi looked at implementing virtualization in the network several years ago, but ultimately decided to take an array-based approach due to its simplicity and time-to-market considerations.

Mikkelsen says that one of the advantages of HDS’s USP is its native data format, which allows users to “return” virtualized data to the SAN (in other words, “unvirtualize” it) if they need to. Competitive products, such as EMC’s Invista and IBM’s SVC, which use “mapping tables,” can’t do this easily, according to Mikkelsen.

Invista is initially targeted at large enterprises, where EMC says the need for virtualization is greatest. However, the product will be made available to smaller environments over time, as well as to EMC’s Velocity Channel partners early next year.

EMC’s Oseth says that while the Invista architecture could be used in small or mid-sized environments, from a cost standpoint doing so wouldn’t be advisable. “Invista is port-based, so it could scale down for mid-sized environments, but cost then becomes an issue,” says Oseth. “It isn’t priced for smaller environments. If you’ve got 2TB of storage that needs to be virtualized-and if you do, I’d question whether you really need virtualization-Invista would have to be priced around $10,000 to make it [cost-effective].”

Unlike some virtualization products, EMC’s Invista is not priced on a per-terabyte basis. List price is $225,000, including all hardware and software. In contrast, IBM’s pricing for its SVC starts at $40,000, which allows smaller companies’ users to benefit from virtualization, according to IBM officials.

Invista hardware components include a Control Path Cluster (CPC) and the intelligent switch platform. The CPC sits outside the intelligent switch and out of the data path on a blade, or controller; it runs the Invista software, which in turn communicates with the intelligent switch and manages the virtualization metadata. The intelligent switch can be a separate switch (e.g., Brocade, MaXXan, and Maranti), blade (e.g., Cisco), or add-in module (e.g., McData), depending on the switch vendor’s architecture. Port-level processors enable virtualization operations on I/Os to take place at line speeds.

Application support will initially include data migration/management, point-in-time (PIT) replication, and cloning; other storage services, including long-distance asynchronous and synchronous replication and continuous data protection, will be supported over time. Similar software functionality is available from competitive vendors.

While there is no limit on the amount of back-end storage that can be virtualized, Invista has been tested to support up to 64TB with no performance degradation. Beyond 64TB, EMC recommends implementing a second Invista. The platform will reportedly support Hewlett-Packard, HDS, and IBM disk arrays, among others, out of the gate.

ESG’s Hurley says that EMC’s Invista was worth the wait. “Having more choices at this formative stage of SAN virtualization is good for users.”

Although not essential to an information ILM strategy, most analysts and vendors agree that virtualization will help simplify the ILM process.

This article was originally published on June 01, 2005