Red Hat acquisition of Inktank beefs up its storage play

Red Hat's Inktank acquisition draws praise, but it's unclear when the open source software vendor will become a major player in enterprise storage.

Red Hat Inc. last week made a move to fill gaps in its storage portfolio with the acquisition of Inktank Storage Inc. The purchase gives Red Hat a block interface and bolsters its OpenStack integration.

But it's less clear whether the Red Hat acquisition of Inktank will make a significant impact on the vendor's ultimate goal of becoming a major player in the enterprise data storage space with an open source strategy, industry analysts agreed. Red Hat is taking an open source approach to software-defined storage, where the storage software can run on customer-supplied commodity server hardware.

"It'll take a couple of years for it to mature and for enterprises to start adopting it for some of their more mission-critical environments and such, but it's coming," predicted Ashish Nadkarni, a research director in IDC's storage systems and software practice.

As an OpenStack distributor, Red Hat must have discovered the limitations of OpenStack Swift and that it's not keeping up with the market. Ceph is keeping up.

Marc Staimer,
Dragon Slayer Consulting

Best known for its enterprise distribution of the open source Linux operating system, Red Hat began putting the pieces of its storage strategy into place with its 2011 acquisition of Gluster Inc., which sold a supported version of the open source GlusterFS scale-out file system.

Red Hat also became a leading contributor with the open source project for OpenStack cloud technology and, last year, released its own supported distribution, known as the Red Hat Enterprise Linux OpenStack Platform. The company subsequently did the necessary integration work to make Red Hat Storage a supported back end for its OpenStack edition.

Meanwhile, Inktank Storage had become a prominent distributor of open source Ceph software, which can provide highly scaleable object-, block- and file-based storage under a unified system. Ceph is integrated with OpenStack and provides a back-end option for OpenStack Object Storage, often referred to by its project code name, Swift, and OpenStack Block Storage, known as Cinder.

Links between Red Hat and Inktank became apparent in February when Inktank announced it had certified its commercial Ceph Enterprise product as a storage back end for the Red Hat Enterprise Linux OpenStack Platform. Inktank recently said its customer base had grown from approximately 20 at the end of 2012 to roughly 80, with many using Ceph with OpenStack. Customers include Bloomberg, Deutsche Telecom and the University of Alabama.

"As a company that wants to be a serious software-defined storage player, [Red Hat] got the right company at the right time," IDC's Nadkarni said.

Marc Staimer, president and founder of Dragon Slayer Consulting, said Red Hat was not a legitimate player in the storage market prior to the Inktank acquisition, even though the company may have thought it was, and future success hinges on how the acquisition is executed.

Staimer called the purchase of the primary distributor of Ceph a "smart move" for Red Hat to complete its open source portfolio. He said open source Ceph brings object storage software with REST interfaces such as Amazon S3 and OpenStack Swift, as well as block and file interfaces.

"As an OpenStack distributor, Red Hat must have discovered the limitations of OpenStack Swift and that it's not keeping up with the market," Staimer said via email. "Ceph is keeping up."

Red Hat to maintain Gluster, Ceph

Henry Baltazar, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, said the Inktank acquisition makes sense despite some overlaps with Red Hat's Gluster technology. He expects Red Hat will use Inktank's influence on the Ceph open source community to steer and accelerate Ceph development toward improving and refining block storage.

"Prior to this, Inktank was trying to make Ceph into a one-size-fits-all [block, object, file], which was probably too much of a stretch for the company and the community," Baltazar wrote in an email. "Red Hat is going to maintain both communities [Gluster and Ceph], which is a good move. The top goal for the vendor should be to increase market share and influence, regardless of if customers choose to use Gluster or Ceph."

Red Hat is a public company and does not break out storage revenue. But, so far, there have been no public signs that Red Hat's storage software is catching fire, especially to the degree that Red Hat Enterprise Linux has.

Ray Lucchesi, president of Silverton Consulting, said that while Ceph is an interesting technology with a promising future, Red Hat must confront the challenge of making it easier to install, use and manage.

"It still needs some work, and I think Red Hat can help there," Lucchesi said. "To really make open source storage more prevalent in the marketplace, it has to become much more productized, much more easy to use, much more easy to install and deploy."

Lucchesi said, to some extent, the world is moving to software-defined storage, and open source will play a role in that trend. But he is wary of the notion that, for data storage, all software could eventually be based on open source code.

"If your server goes down and an application stops, you could always restart it. If your storage starts losing data or corrupting data, transactions don't work properly," he said. "I think, in storage, you have to be a little bit more careful just going down the open source path. … You've got to be very good in storage to do it well."

Lucchesi cited the recently discovered Heartbleed security exposure involving open source code. He said companies with thousands of subsystems in the field cannot afford a data integrity exposure and need to be especially careful about what they do.

But IDC's Nadkarni brushed aside any skepticism and asserted that open source storage software is up to the task of enterprise needs. He said that if Linux could overtake a server market dominated by major players such as Hewlett-Packard (HP), IBM and Sun, he sees no reason why the same thing will not happen with storage. He claimed the vast majority of storage operating systems already use Linux.

In making the Inktank announcement, Red Hat claimed it could offer customers "a very competitive alternative to traditional proprietary storage systems from companies like EMC." Industry analysts said the list of competitors also could include software-defined storage startups such as Nutanix and Tintri, as well as object storage vendors such as Caringo, Cleversafe, DataDirect Networks and Scality.

Nadkarni said Red Hat will not see a "quick spike" in adoption, but will "slowly but surely capture a decent chunk of the storage market." He said Red Hat might even acquire another company, such as a Hadoop distributor, to more fully round out its portfolio.

"Red Hat [is] not going to just sit there and do nothing," he predicted. "It's going to be a slow but steady incursion on enterprise software."

Nadkarni said the next big step for Red Hat will be forging hardware partnerships. He said the company's current relationship with Cisco is important, and Red Hat can now approach additional suppliers, such as Dell, HP or Supermicro.

"Yes, they were not successful so much with Gluster because Gluster was not a Swiss Army knife. But now, with a portfolio of Ceph, OpenStack and Gluster, it's a much more powerful partnership that they can go strike with all these hardware partners," Nadkarni said. "That is ultimately how they're going to get more market share."

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