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Column: Does EMC's ILM strategy really solve complexity?

EMC is pushing ILM hard -- but what is the company really selling?

When I arrive at EMC's headquarters in Hopkinton, Mass., for my day-long tour of its facilities, I am greeted by a 36-inch plasma TV screen in the building's lobby displaying programming on the company's current obsession: information lifecycle management, or ILM.

ILM is all I will hear in EMC's message-fest today. To say the company is beating the drum on this is a vast understatement.

What exactly does it mean by ILM? It's more than tiered storage, I'm assured. While EMC is prepared to offer customers cheaper media for less important data, what it is "really" offering, according to the marketers I meet with, is "intellectual tools" -- management software and services to manage your data .

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"Data is growing 60% to 70% annually," the vice president of strategic marketing, Chuck Hollis, tells me. "Users are suffering from an informational hangover -- we'll help them address data growth and complexity."

Later, I'm taken through EMC's temple to its new strategy in action, a place where you can stare through pane glass at hulking Clariion boxes humming away, busily storing the data of some high-profile customers.

On the wall in this bunker (its lobby watched over by a hypervigilant security guard, its data center below ground and windowless) is a mnemonic of EMC's new business model: PLAN. BUILD. MANAGE. This is what "ILM" means to the company, and the way it proposes to solve your "pain point" having to do with complexity is -- for a fee -- to figure out how to make all its boxes work instead of making you do it.

Before the day is over, I will also journey into the bowels of the main building to see the hardware monster EMC is marketing as an "ILM solution": the new Symmetrix DMX-3, a roaring behemoth the size of a motor home. At its present testing level, the beast contains 1,920 300 GB Fibre Channel drives, a central memory "brain," and frames that will accommodate, say, a Centera system and tape library alongside vast stacks of Symmetrix disk.

The box, code-named "Louisville Slugger," uses EMC software to migrate data between frames. You can, of course, add on bells and whistles (sorry, "intellectual tools") to your heart's content.

Meanwhile, though, Symmetrix and Centera OS systems still won't talk to each other -- the system is not woven directly together. Ultimately, it's hard to see the real advantage of this monolith, other than the fact that the boxes are, to use Hollis' words, "wrapped up in one big piece of tin."

The plot thickens as I try to get Hollis to give me an answer as to how much this big tin might cost. Eventually, he tells me: "Millions."

So, this is how EMC will address your complexity issues: by wrapping a bunch of arrays in a seven-figure piece of tin, selling you software to manage and migrate data, and selling you experts to tell you how it works. But they aren't actually upgrading the technology. EMC may be selling "simplifying" products -- but it isn't yet selling "simpler" products.

"That's a longer term prospect," says Pete Koliopoulos, senior director of software marketing. "There's a hierarchy of needs here. We've addressed people's needs for raw storage. Now we're beginning to address their need for solving complexity. Innovation in the technology is always happening."

Meanwhile, with capital expenditures declining and operational expenditures increasing in most IT departments, the outflow of money is drying up. EMC needs a way to continue to sell people storage as much as those people need a way to stop buying it.

It's here EMC tips its hand, openly delving with me into revenue statistics showing its shift away from straight-up storage and a little software, to a revenue goal of a 40-40-20 split between storage, software, and services. Sales of services, however, are still hovering at 17%.

Then there's the matter of EMC's target audience and the built-in limits thereof. "Obviously, [DMX-3] isn't going to be worth it for you unless you're really big," Hollis says. "We really only sell that to the very high end."

"That's a relatively small market," I say. "Doesn't it ever get saturated?"

"Well," Hollis says with a grin. "That's where data growth comes in. And complexity, of course."

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