EMC is the world's largest storage systems company, but despite that the organization is also surprisingly agile. So if you want to understand which way the storage industry is heading, it helps to study EMC.
Now happens to be a particularly good time to put EMC under the microscope. That's because in early May, at its annual EMC World conference in Las Vegas, the company opened the kimono on what products it's been working away on these last few months, and what it's planning for the near future.
The company revealed all kinds of things at its storage fest, but two things in particular stand out and shed the most light on the storage industry's direction. So it's those two that this article will be concentrating on.
The first is the update to EMC's ViPR storage software product that was first released back in September of 2013. The second is what EMC is calling Project Liberty, which provides the features and functionality of EMC's VNX mid-range storage arrays in software – minus the physical storage devices, of course.
So, firstly, ViPR - or ViPR 2.0 as it is in the current iteration. It's not the same as Project Liberty's concept of a software controller split from commodity storage devices. Rather it's software that can be used as a kind of meta-platform on a level above physical arrays, unifying them and integrating them so that each physical array is no longer a separate data silo. EMC calls it a software defined storage platform.
In its first release it was very far from being feature complete - only supporting object data services (with access via Amazon S3 and Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS) APIs,) having limited support for other vendors' arrays, and only really being suited to a single data center.
With the new release, it adds several features including:
· Additional array support. In addition to commodity hardware (HP SL4540 initially,) ViPR 2.0 now supports Isilon, ScaleIO, VBLOCK, VMAX, and VNX EMC storage, plus third-party storage including Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) and NetApp, and provides access to HP, IBM, and Dell systems via the OpenStack Cinder plug-in.
· Geo-distribution and protection. ViPR 2.0 enables customers to manage a geographically distributed environment of multiple data centers as a single namespace and use metadata-driven policies to distribute and protect content against data center disasters with geo-distribution and replication capabilities.
· Block storage data service provided by ScaleIO, the Israeli startup the company acquired last year.
Those are the facts about ViPR 2.0, but what does this tell us about EMC's vision of storage for the future?
When ViPR was launched in September it was clear that it was significant, and now EMC is fleshing it out further into what is doubtless going to be a key product for the company. But why is it going down this software route with such determination when its roots lie in selling EMC hardware?
The reason, according to Mark Peters, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, is that the company recognizes that software is changing the storage industry fundamentally, and if you can't beat it then you'd better join it.
"EMC can see the writing on the wall, they see that change is inherent, logical and possible," he says. "So they are getting ready for the change by building up one side of the business while the other side declines – or at least suffers margin attack."
For a company that has specialized in making its own proprietary boxes, one of the more perplexing things is EMC's increasing willingness to support third party hardware – including commodity hardware. It has embraced HDS and NetApp directly, and other vendors' systems indirectly via OpenStack as well.
So to an extent it is supporting competition for its own products by supporting other vendors' systems and commodity disks. What kind of a business model is that?