EMC Changes Reflect Storage Industry Changes

By Paul Rubens

Peters points out that there have been other platforms that control third party storage systems, from the likes of IBM, Hitachi and even NetApp. "But the truth is that although they offer heterogeneous platforms, they are actually Trojan horses," he says

What's actually going on is that EMC will hope to gain account control. It offers its customers the flexibility to use what arrays they want – at first – while maintaining a presence and income stream from those customers.  Effectively it is continuing to "lock in" customers. The difference is that now it is locking them in to its ViPR software, whereas before it was locking them in to its hardware.

The transition from hardware storage to software defined storage is likely to be a long one – in part because many organizations have made significant investments in hardware storage systems. But it's also because while EMC is getting its fingers firmly in the software pie, it doesn't want to destroy its existing and profitable storage business unnecessarily.

For that reason, don't expect too many features to be added to ViPR too quickly going forward. "EMC understands where its money is coming from today, and don't forget that it is in the business of making money," says Peters. "If I sell VMAX, I don't want to put all that functionality in ViPR. So while EMC is adding functionality like block support, it doesn't want to add too much."

So what of Project Liberty, and the idea of offering  a software -only VNX?  The "project" – and that means that a product may or may not come out of it – is developing virtualized storage software based on the VNX family of arrays. This software will be deployable on a virtual server or perhaps in a hybrid cloud.

EMC suggests that one use case will be to enable IT departments to spin up multiple virtual array instances quickly in test and development environments, and then migrate them to physical VNXs later for superior performance.

The first thing to say about this is that software defined storage uses a software storage controller that is separate from the storage hardware array, whereas a storage system  uses  storage controller hardware running microcode attached to the storage array.

But what happens when hardware storage controllers are really just made up of controller software running on a commodity PC? "Vendors still call them controllers to keep their margins high," says Peters.  In other words, many storage systems are really nothing more than disks and software defined storage controllers.  "So Project Liberty is just EMC acknowledging this," Peters adds.

It's not clear why a virtual VNX would be confined to a test and dev arena though, unless it is performance-limited in some way.  After all, why would a virtual VNX not be able to provide the performance necessary to support production environments?

EMC, like most of the storage industry, is in a state of flux and is just embarking on the transition from "traditional" integrated storage systems to software-defined storage. But this may prove to be just a waypoint in the journey that storage is taking.

That's because the storage industry's entire raison d'etre was prefaced on the notion that servers themselves didn’t have the raw horsepower to do storage duties as well as computing ones. But now that processing is so cheap and networks are so powerful, it's not even clear that storage systems have a long term future.

"The traditional SAN certainly has a finite future," says Peters. "How long will it be before all storage is stored centrally - perhaps even in the cloud? I think that we will start to see that in under a decade," he concludes.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

This article was originally published on May 27, 2014

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