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IBM mid-tier roadmap unclear

IBM will unveil new products at the high-end of the market next week, which will have implications for its midrange FAStT system, raising questions over its OEM relationship with Engenio and the future of this product line.

IBM Corp. is gearing up to introduce two products in New York City next week , and key to its plans will be a new storage array that sources say will be followed by additional boxes aimed squarely at the midrange market.

While the news is reassuring to some users, who are glad to see IBM filling out its portfolio, others are concerned that the midrange FAStT product line, which IBM rebrands from Engenio Technologies Inc., could be phased out over time and replaced by the newer products.

A spokesperson for IBM declined to shed any light on the situation, except to say that all will become clear next week when the company makes its announcement. Still, people familiar with IBM's plans said that there will be overlap between the current FAStT products and the new mid-tier systems coming down the line.

"IBM will continue to OEM the Engenio products but will start to limit the configuration of what they are shipping ... There will be a lot of overlap, and it will boil down to what the user will buy and what the sales guys have as an incentive to sell," said an industry watcher, who wished to remain anonymous.

Curtis Preston, vice president of services at Glasshouse Technologies Inc., pointed out that IBM is no doubt "tired of seeing all that revenue" going to Engenio and would rather sell an offering of its own.

For users stuck in the middle of this somewhat confusing roadmap, IBM is likely to throw its SAN Volume Controller (SVC) virtualization software into the mix. Among other things, this allows users to replicate between the Shark and the FAStT product lines today and will likely be extended to support the new systems. "IBM has a huge installed base of FAStT customers who are not going to rip and replace this gear ... And IBM is not going to want to isolate those guys," another source said.

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A case in point is Ahold Information Services, which has 500 IBM FAStT arrays. "SVC wants to support everyone," said Christine Collins, senior manager of enterprise computing architecture at Ahold. "If I can use the same copy services across all these platforms, then that's a good direction from IBM." Collins was unconcerned about whether IBM continues to resell the FAStT as Ahold replaces its systems as soon as they come off lease. "It wouldn't be a big deal for us to switch as long as the technology keeps improving and I can standardize across the line," she said, adding that "it's nice to see IBM finally filling in its product line."

Skeptics point out that IBM's track record in the mid-tier market has been sketchy at best and suggest that its latest move is indicative of the company's back and forth mentality toward building its own storage products.

During the mid-90s, the computer giant built and sold the Random Access Method of Accounting and Control (RAMAC) disk arrays, which it killed in favor of reselling StorageTek Iceberg arrays (resold as RAMAC virtual arrays). These were eventually dropped for its own mid-tier 7133 Serial Storage Architecture subsystem, which was eventually dumped for the LSI developed products it sells today.

"We're a big fan of the FAStT. We'd probably try and source it from someone else... The performance is very good," said one user who requested anonymity. Other resellers of the Engenio product include SGI, StorageTek and NCI's Teradata division.

The power of five

The new DS6000 is based on IBM's latest 64-bit Power5 processor, which has a logical partitioning capability that can be used to create virtual machines within the same system. Hitachi Data Systems offers a similar feature in its Lightning products. The P5 has the capability to enable 10 partitions but initially will only support a few, sources said. The idea is that users can consolidate their workloads within the same storage array; for example, groups of database servers could have one partition, while Exchange servers could use a second partition. The multi-threading capability of the chip allows users to devote all the processor's resources to a particular job, or carve it up between multiple jobs. The chip is also smart enough to automatically shift energy resources toward tasks that are demanding more power and away from areas where demand is less.

Like HDS, IBM is also looking at providing more storage services within the array rather than on a host. Tivoli Storage Manager or NAS gateway functionality is a possibility along with volume management and replication features offered today.

The DS6000, which will replace the Shark ESS 750, will scale to 67 TB and support mainframe and open system servers. It will come in a 3U package that fits into a 19-inch rack. It is expected to compete head-to-head with EMC Corp.'s Clariion CX 500s and 700s but will likely be priced under these products. The second product to be announced, called the DS8000, will replace the current high-end Shark, the ESS 800, and will also use the P5 chip.

One final question raised by people familiar with IBM's upcoming announcements concerns the timing of these introductions. "Either they saw the threat from HDS and had to respond, or they were getting their brains beat out in the marketplace and had to introduce something fast, but normally you would never want to introduce something in the fourth quarter and forestall sales," said a source familiar with the company's plans.

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