EMC wrestles for storage glory

EMC Corp. was once the undisputed champion of the storage industry. But as competition increased and the cost of storage plummeted, EMC lost valuable ground.

In a flashback to its glory days of the 1990s’ stock market boom, EMC is attempting to turn the tide with a new line of high-end arrays based on a new point-to-point interconnect architecture dubbed the Symmetrix direct matrix.

Although the new architecture boosts system performance, the storage game has shifted. Demand for management software that permits storage administrators to mange complex heterogeneous SAN environment continues unabated, affirming vendors’ mass migration to generating value from software, rather than hardware engineering.

“In 2003, the challenge for EMC is further differentiating itself from other vendors,” says Jamie Gruener, a senior analyst at Yankee Group. “And the magic is promoting the integration of its software with the new hardware.”

EMC competitors agree. Storage management software remains most in demand – an area where EMC lags, some claim.

But EMC disagrees.

EMC’s new family of Symmetrix storage arrays unveiled on Feb. 3 consists of the DMX800, DMX1000, and DMX2000. According to Barry Burke, director of integrated solutions for networked storage platforms at EMC, the matrix architecture permits as much as 64Gbps of total bandwidth – significantly greater than the 10.6Gbps bandwidth that Hitachi Data Systems Corp. (HDS) claims with its Lightening 9980V array introduced last year.

The company reports that the new architecture is comprised of as many as 128 point-to-point connections directly linking the channel directors to the global cache memory and then the same cache directly to the back-end disk director. This provides nonblocking parallel access to the directors, which eliminates performance issues such as latency and bandwidth constraints, according to the company.

Competitors downplay the faster performance claims, which put the Symmetrix three times faster than HDS’s fastest system and four to five times faster than that of IBM Corp. EMC’s competitors say customers are instead clamoring for interoperability and availability.

“It’s hard to tell what it buys you,” said Jay Seifert, a disk product marketing manager at Storage Technology Corp., referring to the new EMC systems. “Software is what gives customers value.”

IBM couldn’t agree more. On the same day that EMC introduced its new line of products, IBM announced a new API based on the emerging SMI/Bluefin standard that permits other management platforms to do LUN (logical unit number) masking and LUN creation on the IBM Shark. In other words, IBM is taking steps to open its arrays up to permit third-party management.

“We are delivering what customers want,” says Jim Duckwell, a marketing executive for IBM’s enterprise storage server division.

But EMC disagrees. Burke explains that the company’s operating system has continuity between the old and new family. He says it is easy to replicate data between an old Symmetrix and a new DMX system with the use of its Symmetrix Remote Data Facility (SRDF) software. Burkes adds too that all of the software functionality on the old system has been moved forward too.

“It is no small feat,” said Burke. “We’ve taken all our software functionality forward.”

With regard to open management software, Burke reiterates that EMC is also committed to embracing open standards on the management front with its Automated Information Storage Management (AutoIS) strategy. He says the company intends to make all of its products SMI-complaint by year’s end.

Burke points out that IBM’s Tivoli Storage Management is among 37 qualified third-party management products that already work with the new Symmetrix. At press time the Web link to the complete list of supported software was not functional.

EMC claims it is on par with customer’s software needs. “Our focus this year is the consultative sale,” explains Burke. “Not all of our customers are a Symmetrix-mirrored solution.”

He adds that EMC has retooled its sales force to understand the different features and functions of the three new Symmetrix systems and the three mid-range Clariion systems introduced late last year.

“The best way for us to sell a new Symmetrix is to lead with the Clariion,” Burke says. “If a Clariion is all they need, then great.”

He concludes that EMC is the only vendor with a full range of products that work well together and are priced between US$25,000 and $2.5 million.

“Vision and selling an integrated platform is what the vendors need to be doing,” said Jamie Gruener, a senior analyst at Yankee Group. “And nobody is doing a good job there today.”

Scott Tyler Shafer is an InfoWorld senior writer. Contact him at storage_insider@infoworld.com