EMC's Storage Strategy

The rise of non-structured data and the demand for flash-based storage have rattled the storage market. I’ll look at how EMC has responded to these trends.

David Hill

December 27, 2012

5 Min Read
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In its 2002 annual report, EMC described its strategy in a one-line statement: It was the only company 100% dedicated to automated networked storage. What a difference a decade makes! Now EMC is an information infrastructure company with a broad portfolio of products and services, including VMware and RSA. Still, amidst all the talk about the cloud, big data, and the software-defined data center, storage continues to be a central focus of its product portfolio. At the company's recent Industry Analyst Summit, EMC explained how that storage portfolio fits within its overall strategic themes.

EMC's storage portfolio is anchored at the high end by the products of the Enterprise Storage Division (ESD) and in what is traditionally described as the midrange products of the Unified Storage Division (USD).

ESD products such as VMAX emphasize the reliability and advanced data management capabilities (such as for disaster recovery protection) that are necessary for mission-critical systems, such as online transaction processing systems. As you might expect, VMAX commands a higher price for these capabilities.

The USD division features the converged infrastructure VNX product line. (Convergence means that it can meet file-based NAS and block-based SAN requirements.)

Having at least two distinct storage lines is a common theme with EMC as well as with its competitors. (Dell, HDS, HP, IBM, Oracle and NetApp, although how direct that competition actually is depends upon the particular vendor and use cases.)

While this dual-division strategy has served EMC well, in recent years two monkey wrenches have been thrown into the gears of the traditional market model: the growth of non-structured data and the need for flash-based storage.

A Lack of Structure

The first monkey wrench is the rise in non-structured data (that is, data that doesn't reside in a relational database). The basic label for this category is big data, but the category also covers use cases such as online archiving and other data-driven intelligence applications. The requirements around this category include simplicity, low cost and high capacity.

EMC decided this market had a lot of growth potential, so it acquired Isilon. Isilon offers scale-out NAS in conjunction with its distributed file systems and its OneFS OS. It is suitable for the big data market, including vertical markets such as streaming video and other media, where it already has a strong presence. (Note that EMC also offers Greenplum, but, as an appliance, Greenplum takes a different tack to the big data market.) EMC touts the simplicity of Isilon and views the Isilon Storage Division as enabling two storage worlds--big data and enterprise scale-out--that address the first monkey wrench.

EMC isn't the only vendor playing here, of course. At the high end, IBM offers Scale Out Network Attached Storage (SONAS), with which IBM supports millions to billions of active files in a single namespace. At the lower end of the market, Scale Computing offers a product that can scale out both performance and capacity in a virtualized environment. Panasas focuses on scale-out computing in areas such as high-performance computing. And, of course, Dell and NetApp also want to be counted in the ballgame.

Next page: Flash TransformationsThe second monkey wrench thrown into the traditional storage planning model is the need for flash or solid state drives (SSDs). Why? Simply put, CPU performance has historically increased by two orders of magnitude (100x) each decade. But while hard disk drives have increased in capacity over that same period, they did not increase in read/write speed. That has resulted in severe I/O bottleneck problems. Enter flash storage, which is one means of supporting applications that demand high performance. Enter also a gold rush of smaller players, as well as large IT vendors, into this market space. EMC's Flash Products Division addresses the flash market.

Among the biggest questions about flash is where it is best deployed. The answer is--it depends. One of EMC's solutions mixes flash along with traditional hard disks into a hybrid array, where flash provides another "0" storage tier. All of EMC's big storage lines--VMAX, VNX and Isilon--support hybrid arrays. For other applications, EMC will offer an all-flash SSD array (EMC has codenamed this Project X, but has not publicly revealed product details), as well as a PCIe flash (VFCache) capability at the server level.

Again, EMC isn't alone in this market. Everybody has a flash story, from the big vendors to a a cast of thousands (it seems!) of smaller vendors, including Fusion-IO, Violin Memory, SolidFire, Astute Networks and Whiptail.

Mesabi Musings

Trying to cover the entire strategy of any large IT vendor is like the old story about the blind men trying to describe an elephant--you can get your hands around individual parts, but it's difficult to step back and understand the whole.

In addition, the analysis of business strategy has evolved a lot in recent years (notably Geoffrey Moore's "Crossing the chasm" and Clayton Christensen's "Innovator's dilemma" themes among them). While EMC recognizes the different schools of thought and uses them as appropriate, it has a refreshing and positive approach very much its own that was clearly on display at the EMC Industry Analyst Summit. It might be called "all strategy is action."

For EMC, strategy is an ongoing, continuous and iterative process that permeates all company actions (including product development and sales initiatives) over all time frames--operational (immediate, short-term), tactical (say, weeks to months) and long-term strategic (say, a year or more)--under the influence of core guiding principles (such as ongoing investment in R&D). A few other vendors are attempting a similar approach, but we may not have to wait another 10 years to see whether EMC's strategy will succeed.

EMC is a client of David Hill and the Mesabi Group.

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