IBM to play shark in crowded storage waters

Saving its enterprise customers from having to chop down hectares of forests may not be what IBM Corp. had in mind but, in theory at least, the company’s new storage product is capable of that and more.

IBM officials admit they had all but ceded the storage competition to industry market-leader EMC. And until now, IBM has been licensing a primary storage product, the Ramac Virtual Array (RVA), from Louisville, Colo.-based company Storage Technology Corp.

But at a recent press event in New York, Ron Kilpatrick, general manager of IBM’s storage division, helped unveil the new Enterprise Storage Server (ESS), code-named Shark, which IBM is banking on to put its name back in the storage market.

“If there’s anyone who doubts we’re in [storage] to win, Shark should put those doubts to rest,” Kilpatrick said.

IBM is not only playing catch-up in the storage arena, they’re also responding to the intense demands being placed on systems by e-commerce, as well as resource-thirsty enterprise applications, including ERP, business intelligence and customer relationship management, Kilpatrick said.

ESS features up to 11.2 terabytes of storage capacity; enough to store all the works in the U.S. Library of Congress with a terabyte or so to spare, or enough to spare the lives of some 50,000 trees.

As well, users of ESS can access more than one application at the same time, and there’s the ability to assign each server its own partitioned storage pool. ESS comes with two four-way symmetric multiprocessors, Serial Storage Architecture and is able to work with both IBM’s S/390 and AS/400 operating systems, as well as Novell, Solaris, UNIX and Windows NT.

“And if there’s a significant opportunity for a platform that we don’t support today, we’re going to aggressively go after that,” said Michael Harrison, director or worldwide marketing, storage systems division.

It also supports a wide variety of interfaces, including Enterprise Systems Connection, Fibre Channel and Ultra SCSI.

ESS is built on IBM’s Seascape Storage Enterprise Architecture and features other, already-established IBM technology including peer-to-peer remote copy and FlashCopy functions. And IBM plans to ship virtual storage capability for ESS in the near future.

Although IBM wouldn’t divulge the exact cost of the new storage systems, Kilpatrick estimated that users are looking at a price tag in the US$3 million range. The first servers are scheduled to ship to customers in September.

Industry observers are reacting favourably, both to ESS technology and IBM’s timing and strategy. “EMC has got about half of the marketplace…so there’s an uphill battle here,” said Mike Kahn, chairman and co-founder of The Clipper Group, a consulting firm based in Wellesley, Mass.

“But it also is the first IBM product which likens to EMC’s Symmetrix which allows the connection of S/390 and open products to the same array, so IBM now has something to compete with.”

Kahn expects IBM to be very aggressive on price to get users interested, but he said current RVA users should ask themselves what their using storage for when studying ESS.

“If people are looking for that lower entry (price) point with compressed data, then that capability is RVA. But if all they want to be able to do is make copies or near instantaneous copies, IBM has other ways for them to do that, and they can do it on uncompressed files on the ESS when FlashCopy ships.”

Alan Freedman, servers and workstations analyst with International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd. in Toronto, said there’s a three-way battle brewing between IBM, EMC and Hitachi in Canada, but that ESS represents a big change for IBM.

“I think IBM has upped their technology, and they’re really gearing it toward the storage area networks, and I think if you’re a storage vendor that’s where you want to be these days because more and more of the storage is going to go in the SANs, especially when you’re looking at the high end,” he said.

“And I don’t think EMC is there, so I think that’s where they have an opportunity to scale back some of the marketshare EMC has taken from IBM.”

EMC doesn’t seem overly concerned, noting that IBM’s product still won’t be available for awhile and claiming that it lacks key features, such as native Fibre Channel connectivity. “We prefer to compete with real products,” an EMC official said. “This is based on hype.”

As for the StorageTek partnership, Harrison said IBM will honour its licence agreement with them until its conclusion on Dec.31, 2000. “(But) we anticipate that the better value proposition for our customers will be with ESS.”

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