EMC to put hardware in servers, VMs in storage

CEO Joe Tucci to step down in 2012, will become chairman

FOXBORO, Mass. -- EMC held its user forum last week at the home of the New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, using the opportunity to expound on its vision for virtualization and the cloud.

EMC president and chief operating officer Pat Gelsinger
EMC president and chief operating officer Pat Gelsinger

One message that came through among several executive keynotes was that EMC will soon be selling hardware for servers while moving virtual servers onto its storage products.

One of the more interesting aspects of EMC's journey into supplying private cloud infrastructures and business intelligence capabilities is its stated objective to be able to run VMware-based virtual machines (VMs) on storage arrays.

The technology is enabled through EMC's pervasive use of multicore Intel x86 processors. EMC runs vSphere directly on the storage controllers and then uses vMotion to migrate VMs from application servers onto the storage array, said Pat Gelsinger, president and chief operating officer of EMC's Information Infrastructure Products, in a roundtable discussion with a group of journalists at the user forum.

Earlier this year, at its annual users conference, EMC demonstrated VMs running on its midrange VNX storage array and its Isilon clustered NAS array. Internally, EMC has also demonstrated VMs on its high-end Symmetrix VMAX array, Gelsinger said.

Because VM operations are shared with storage resources, use cases would be limited to those needing low compute power. One use case for VMs on storage arrays would be EMC's Greenplum data analytics platform, which customers use to comb through terabytes or petabytes of data and to try to filter out small amounts of information.

"That's a great example of lots of data and a little bit of compute. Now you don't have to drag those petabytes across the network," Gelsinger said.

He offered no timeline for when VMware-enabled storage arrays would be available, saying that EMC is involved in "some careful architectural work," in terms of how to expose the array APIs to VMware's interfaces.

"It's a whole lot of plumbing because none of these arrays were built to be general-purpose compute; these are specialized operating environments in them, so it's a lot of work to go do that," he said. "I will argue EMC is already pretty far along in that evolution from being a storage appliance to an appliance that has broader use cases in the infrastructure."

Project Lightning

Gelsinger also expanded on EMC's plan to sell NAND flash-based PCIe cards for application servers, known internally as "Project Lightning." The development effort was originally announced at EMC World in May.

Gelsinger described Project Lightning as an internal start-up company that would remain small and unhampered by higher corporate meddling.

Earlier this year, Gelsinger hinted that EMC might be working with Intel, already an EMC development partner, to create the cards. Last week, however, he refused to name the technology partner on the Lightning Project.

EMC plans to make the PCIe card generally available by the end of this year or early next year. The company has the cards in beta testing with a few customers.

While the technology behind NAND flash-based PCIe cards is anything but simple, the idea behind them is easy to understand: The closer high-performance storage gets to a server's CPU, thereby avoiding the bottleneck on a storage network, the faster application data can be processed.

PCIe cards are used for low-latency, high-availability applications, such as online transaction processing and trading environments.

In June, Intel development partner Micron began selling its first PCIe flash card, the RealSSD P320h. That card comes in 350GB and 700GB capacities. But Gelsinger didn't mention Intel when talking about potential competitors in the PCIe flash card space. Instead, he focused on early industry leader Fusion-io.

Micron's P320h SSD
Micron's P320h SSD.

"Why would they buy a Lightning [PCIe card] versus a Fusion-io? There's a value proposition when we talk to customers ... particularly for the enterprise customer," he said, explaining that users want hardware in their servers that is tightly integrated with the storage in their back end.

"It doesn't back up? It doesn't fit into the rest of my infrastructure? I don't have resilience with this? It doesn't have any connection to my storage environment? Those become very fundamental issues," Gelsinger continued. "What we said with Lightning is we'll solve those issues while delivering a very high-performance card that's very comparable to what Fusion-io does."

EMC's PCIe flash cards will become a virtual part of EMC's current Fully Automated Storage Tiering architecture, a software tool that automatically moves data among disk drive types in an array based on how frequently it's accessed. For example, highly accessed data would be moved to solid state drives (SSDs), while the least frequently accessed data would be migrated to slower, high-capacity serial ATA (SATA) drives.

"We've just extended it into the [server]. So you'll have persistence, backup, replication, deduplication, snapshots, [disaster recovery]. I get all the benefits of Fusion-io, and all the value proposition that fits into storage," he said.

EMC didn't want to break up with Dell

EMC has been moving downstream in the marketplace over the past several years, providing lower-end systems for small- and medium-size businesses (SMBs), most recently with its VNXe array, which has a starting price of under $10,000. As EMC moved downstream, and its biggest reseller partner Dell moved upstream, competition became heated.

Earlier this week, Dell announced that it ended its 10-year reseller partnership with EMC, which at one time brought in as much as 50% of Dell's storage revenue while also being very lucrative for EMC.

Gelsinger said EMC management, and he personally, worked "extremely" hard to find a model to continue its reseller relationship with Dell, even though the revenue it gained through the partnership as of late was "de minimis." EMC in its second quarter this year saw only about $50 million in revenue from Dell resales, compared with EMC's $13 billion storage business. But he said the partnership couldn't have been better orchestrated.

"The relationship powered us both. Then it got to a natural point where the relationship had to be restructured or end. Unfortunately, it came to an end," he said.

In response to the impending breakup, EMC poured its resources into developing "thousands" of new, smaller reseller partners; this resulted in EMC gaining market share as Dell lost it.

In EMC's third quarter, sales from non-Dell reseller channels grew more than 40%, Gelsinger said. "If you look at the IDC data from Q2, Dell lost share; we gained share. I think that sort of says it all," he added.

While Dell sold EMC's Celerra (network-attached storage) controller and high-end Symmetrix VMAX arrays, the bulk of the partnership revolved around rebranded Clariion entry-level and midrange storage area network (SAN) arrays.

Earlier this year, EMC combined the Clariion and Celerra products to create its VNX array line, which serves up both block- and file-based data.

Geslinger said EMC will discontinue selling Clariion products as of January, but the company will continue support services for that brand for the next five years.

CEO Joe Tucci's departure

EMC CEO Joe Tucci has already publicly stated that he plans to step down by the end of 2012. At that time, he will name a successor.

At EMC's event last week, an EMC spokesman said Tucci plans to move from CEO to EMC board chairman, "at the pleasure of the board," for a two-year tenure, meaning he'll continue to help lead the company through 2014. At that time, he plans to again offer his services as chairman for an additional two years through 2016, the spokesman said.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

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