Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Empire Strikes Back

I was getting ready to write EMC off, at least in the mid-tier. The Clariion was old-tech, and an old way of doing things. They screamed unified, but it didn’t feel that way. Celerra in the NS/NX felt like a bolt-on. They were expensive, fragmented and difficult to work with.

EMC had been making a number of good buys over the past couple of years. RSA, VMware, Kashya and Data Domain come to mind. Avamar and YottaYotta were lesser-known pieces. When it came to primary storage, however it seemed stale. Then they started showing the cards they were holding.

First came VMAX. They refreshed the Symmetrix line with a modular, scalable architecture. It could grow from something small to something big. But the real changes starting coming with FAST and FAST VP.

You see, we were still doing things old school. While competitors like IBM had SVC, a way of aggregating performance across an entire storage platform, let alone multiple storage platforms, EMC remained a rock. While NetApp copied IBM’s SVC with aggregates, EMC remained a rock. While Compellent showed the world what tiering could be with automatic movement, EMC was a rock.

EMC remained quiet. They bought good companies. They made strategic acquisitions. I was partially impressed, but mostly with their M&A. Then came FAST.

Fully Automated Storage Tiering

OK, the name is kind of boring. The marketing name, FAST has a bit more. FAST brought us LUN mobility between storage tiers. It was a nice try, but it was 1.0. Not long after FAST came FAST VP (FAST 2.0 to some), then the paradigm shifted.

With FAST VP, we got an array of technologies. We were given sub-LUN tiering (what we really wanted) and virtual provisioning. FAST VP brings EMC from a legacy Web 1.0 feel into the modern Web 2.0 world. Storage with EMC became easy.

Enter the VNX and VNXe

So instead of coming out with the CX5, NX5, NS5, AX5, we get the VNX and VNXe. It is a break in small and large ways. Although one can see hardware similarities between the two generations, there are stark differences. I’ll try and point these out.

First, the hardware looks familiar. We have SPs and X-Blades. In the VNX line we have similar componentry as CX/NX/NS. The backend has been updated from FC-AL to SAS, as all storage companies are doing. It’s fully SAS v2.0, so no worrying about legacy SAS gear. We have different cards we can stick in the SP or X-blade unit, including FCoE in the SP, but I still need a separate 10 GbE card in the X-blade for NAS (VNXe is truly unified in hardware for block/NAS, but FC/FCoE doesn’t exist in this line). While this may have felt like a significant limitation in the NX/NS4 space, it feels better this way in VNX.

Why? Because with FAST VP, we have virtual storage pools. Block and NAS draw from the same auto-tiering space. Since it’s one pool of storage, the separate hardware doesn’t feel separate. (I do need more switch ports in a Nexus however.) FAST VP allows SSD, SAS and NL-SAS (i.e.. SSD, FC, SATA in previous technology/terminology) to share the same pool – it uses policies to tune itself.

In addition to FAST VP, there’s FAST Cache. If you’re familiar with NetApp’s FlashCache (i.e.. PAM II), it works similarly. You can take SSD (instead of a PCI card) and use it as an extension of cache. You’re not provisioning on these SSD drives, but instead using them to read from as a cache and write to as a cache, an extension of the existing cache. I kind of make an analogy to a layer 3 cache in the compute world. You can combine FAST Cache with FAST VP – the SSD in the virtual storage pool is provisioned from along with the SAS and NL-SAS. The FAST Cache is transient data. If you don’t quite feel ready to trust your storage on SSD, then FAST Cache is for you. Nothing is permanently stored there.

From a management perspective, gone is the ugly, hard to use Navisphere. It’s replaced with an Adobe Flash-based GUI  call Unisphere that performs unified configuration with wizards ready to deploy all the best practices for Exchange, SQL, ESX, Hyper-V, CIFS and NFS, to name a few. It’s incredibly easy to use and competes well with v7000’s XIV-like interface.

EMC had a very a la carte menu of software options and features. Many things were too expensive for customers to use (RecoverPoint comes to mind – the Kashya purchase). They further cleaned up the options, like NetApp did years ago with suites and packs. (Similar to NetApp’s packs and bundles). They even make sense. I’m betting this lowering of price will cause further adoption, and more software sales.

First there’s the base software that comes free. This is file-based deduplication and file-based compression, block compression, virtual provisioning, SAN Copy (think migrate LUNs into me) and Unisphere for Web 2.0-based management. You get all protocols for free: NFS/pNFS, CIFS/MPFS, iSCSI and FC/FCoE. They also add Web 2.0 protocols REST and SOAP for object-based storage. If you’re migrating in NAS, they also give a limited term Replicator license to import your file-based data.

FAST Suite comes next, which includes FAST VP, FAST Cache, Unisphere Analyzer and Unisphere QoS Manager. I would never sell one of these without this suite.

There’s the Security and Compliance Suite for Events (AV, quotas, auditing), file-level retention and host-based encryption.

Local Protection Suite adds local snapshots with SanpView and SnapSure. The real bang though comes with a free fully licensed RecoverPoint/SE for continuous data protection. Just add RecoverPoint Appliance (RPA) hardware and you’re set for DVR-like recovery of your applications.

Remote Protection Suite adds Replicator and MirrorView. It again adds RecoverPoint/SE remote replication, just add RPAs.

Finally they add an Application Protection Suite to give Replication Manager, Data Protection Advisor and agents for Exchange, SQL, Sharepoint, Oracle and SAP.

By adding RecoverPoint Appliance hardware (little cost), EMC VNX moves to state of the art snapshot and mirroring recovery. With little cost, they are best of breed. Add in the agents – and there is a Total Protection Pack covering Local, Remote and Application Protection Suites, and you have one hell of a system for recovery. Or, take the Total Efficiency Pack and get it all, each suite listed above, often cheaper then pulling one or two out.

It’s the Price

Adding in new hardware, new software and fixing the software stack is a well-met move on it’s own, but they didn’t stop there. When IBM came out with the v7000, they showed us a new value for the price for what you got. EMC not only went from being expensive, old and kludgy, but went to being the innovator, new and the best value. They didn’t price VNX to go head-to-head with NetApp or IBM, they’re taking on the smaller players too. They are easily competitive with the Dells, HPs and other second-tier storage vendors out there.

When I say they strike back, I mean it.

EMC was easily a yawn with previous gen gear. It was a safe bet. It worked. It was supported by everyone. Now, EMC is a real leader, not just in market share but in functionality, in features as well as in price. They are hitting everyone back hard with a solid product, a well thought out stack and it’s priced to win. It also integrates well with other products, such as Atmos for archiving.

Other vendor’s need to wake up, or be left in their wake. NetApp used to be the innovator, the leader. They were my favorite, then IBM came out with the v7000 – it was feature rich and easy to use (although it still has that IP-based replication hole). That was 4Q10, now it’s 1Q11 and it’s a different world. The decade’s off to an interesting start. EMC has shown us that they were a sleeping giant, and they’ve woken up and shown us a new world. Their tech portfolio is starting to make sense. You can see the years of cross-integration work. What’s next? Well they have other IP to cross-pollinate into their product lineup. Let’s wait and see.

I’m expecting a lot from EMC this year. They have a lot going on with deduplication and VPLEX for Long-Distance vMotion. I expect great things with Vblock once VNX gets baked into that line. And by the way, I’m not reneging on the Long-Distance vMotion article. The presentation is done, was given and well received. It’s my next article up.

IBM, NetApp, HDS take heed. EMC is back.


  1. Urban,

    (Disclaimer, I work for VCE on the SP and Vertical Solutions team)

    It's good to see the external validation both of the technical side of the VNX/VNXe product launch as well as of the way it was rolled out. It was definitely designed to make an impact on the market! Stay tuned for more on how it plays with the Vblock line as there's some goodness coming there as well.

    One small comment I'd make is your comparison of FAST Cache to FlashCache from NetApp. PAMII uses a DRAM-on-PCIe model that provides for read-cache only. EMC FAST Cache uses standard SSD drives to extend the array cache for both reads AND writes. Each implementation has its benefits, but there are enough differences that I wouldn't call them direct analogies of one another. If you need more info let me know, I'm trying not to get too far into the (FUD-infested) weeds on it. :-)

    Hope this helps, thanks again for your feedback!

  2. Jeramiah,

    Thanks for the comment. There are differences between the architectures of FAST Cache and FlashCache, as there are differences on how reads and writes flow through each system's firmware. I thought I stressed that FAST Cache works with both reads and writes. FlashCache doesn't, but I'm not going into a detailed explanation of how WAFL works. Conceptually they're the same -- an extension of cache. Technically there are many differences.

    FlashCache needs to warm up, it isn't persistent across reboots, it doesn't cover writes. FAST Cache doesn't need to warm up because it is persistent across reboots (except the very first time), it does handle writes. FlashCache is on the PCI bus is has very very low latency. FAST Cache is on SSD and has SCSI and SAS protocol overhead as well as RAID-1 mirroring.

    There are differences, but they're both an extension of cache. That was the takeaway.

    Thanks for your comment. I appreciate it and will check out your blog.