EMC aims to define software-defined storage with ViPR

EMC World 2013 features just one major product announcement as EMC pushes its software-defined storage message around ViPR.

LAS VEGAS -- EMC Corp. is dedicating EMC World 2013 mainly to defining and setting a high bar for its software-defined storage vision.

In 2012, EMC announced more than 40 new or upgraded products. There have been only eight product releases this year, and only one can be considered major: the ViPR software-defined storage platform, which the firm launched Monday.

EMC is pitching ViPR as an enabler of Google-like storage that allows customers to use commodity hardware to reduce cost and complexity, things EMC is not exactly known for.

EMC executives admitted the term software-defined storage can be a tough sell because it means different things to different people. Other storage vendors have pushed the concept without much success or even agreement on what it is. At times, it seems little more than a new take on storage virtualization.

During a session with media and analysts Monday at EMC World, Amitabh Srivastava, president of EMC's Advanced Software Division, actually drew applause when he said, "The term software-defined storage is overused. Nobody knows what it means. People are using work they've done in the past and recasting it as software-defined storage. Some people think that using software to manage commodity storage is software-defined storage."

To sell ViPR, EMC will have to convince customers it can make good on its low-cost, low-complexity promises rather than selling them on the software-defined storage term. Although, some customers don't have to be sold because they have been waiting for a successful form of storage virtualization for years.

Michael Leeper, director of global technical infrastructure at Portland, Ore.-based Columbia Sportswear, said the concept of software-defined storage makes sense to him. He also said it is the obvious next step after virtualized servers and software-defined networking.

"It's the third one in the game," he said. "If you can't figure out what it means by now, you're in trouble. We had software-defined compute with VMware, last summer the talk was all software-defined networking, and now the obvious progression is to software-defined storage. I get it. We're going to separate the intelligence in the storage from the hardware."

Leeper said Columbia has more than 1.5 PB of EMC storage under management at four data centers. He uses VMAX, VNX, Isilon and VPLEX Geo for primary storage and Data Domain for backup. He said Columbia committed to VMware approximately three years ago, and its servers are 98% virtualized.

Columbia doesn't have much non-EMC storage to virtualize, and Leeper said he has no real use for the object services that will be a big piece of the first ViPR release, but he's interested in separating the hardware layer from software in storage the way he does with servers. Columbia will be an early beta customer for ViPR, he said.

"We are used to being able to move our workloads in a compute stack back and forth, up and down, left and right, in and out; all sorts of things," Leeper said. "But we found our flexibility is hindered by two things. One is the network; networking configurations don't move with my VMware nodes. Obviously, there is a reason VMware is moving into that space [with the Nicira acquisition]."

He continued: "Then we started looking around and said, 'Wait a minute, what are we doing for storage?' EMC finally came to us with the [ViPR] stuff and said, 'Here's our option; here's where we're going.'"

Leeper said the main benefit will be, "as we decide we need to move workloads, the identities and configurations of each workload travel with them; that could be within my data centers, between my data centers, or ultimately between my data center and someone else's data center."

Columbia has a large private cloud configuration today, Leeper said. By moving to "someone else's data center," he's referring to a public cloud. He said his company doesn't use a public cloud today, but he would consider it for specific applications.

He said another benefit of ViPR would be, "We start getting out of these vendor games between what makes my hardware better than your hardware. We try to figure out what makes my application perform better. As we look at the storage array, we start seeing a lot of the same physical components in these arrays, but at the core, what's differentiating one array from another is that software layer."

But EMC executives insist that the differences in arrays won't go away. They say each storage hardware platform can maintain competitive advantages even if ViPR allows a common set of software services across them.

"If the VNX is twice as fast as competitors' arrays, we feel people will still see value in [it]," said Eric Herzog, EMC's senior vice president for product management for unified storage. "ViPR provides high-level management orchestration, but there are all kinds of things we can touch in Unisphere [VNX management software] that ViPR can't see. Even with ViPR, integration with applications like Oracle and SQL will still be controlled by the array."

EMC's Srivastava added: "One size just doesn't fit all. There are reasons for different storage systems with different properties."

EMC President Dave Goulden called ViPR "revolutionary" during a Monday EMC World keynote.

"A lot of people have a piece of software that runs on hardware, that's not what this is," Goulden said. "We believe this is the way everybody should do software-defined storage."

Greg Schulz, a senior analyst at Storage IO, said he thought EMC execs showed constraint by not overdoing the use of the software-defined storage term while explaining the underlying technologies.

"They realize they're still conditioning the market," Schulz said. But he said EMC's success with ViPR will depend on factors such as how well it drives adoption of its open application programming interfaces, how it prices the technology, and how well it explains the value of ViPR compared to other EMC technologies, such as the VPLEX federated storage platform.

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