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EMC wins deals with Ibrix file system

Several large installations now feature Clariion storage because of a mysterious love triangle between SAN file system startup Ibrix, EMC and Dell.

Several recent customer wins point to behind-the-scenes entanglements between EMC Corp., Dell Inc. and SAN file systems startup, Ibrix Inc.

Ibrix's Fusion SAN file system software and EMC's Clariion arrays are both included in Dell's Scalable Enterprise Portfolio. It appears Dell, a long-standing partner of EMC, is spearheading most of the sales with this program.

The Ibrix-EMC-Dell trio is putting in one mammoth cluster installation after another, most recently with Norwegian oil and gas surveying firm Electromagnetic Geoservices (EMGS), whose director, Helge Stranden, told he was initially approached by Dell on the deal.

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EMGS had expanded from one to three surveying ships and switched from 2D to 3D modeling for customers, which brought on a data explosion. The company struggled to manage its data on a Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) SAN with ProLiant servers, then attempted NFS, which also proved inadequate -- after adding about 10 to 15 nodes, many would lose communication with each other, or the whole system would fail.

"We managed to get up to 50 nodes," Stranden said. The current cluster run by the firm is now 500 nodes. "But we had an unstable system and it was clearly not as scalable as we needed."

Enter Dell, eager to sell them, you guessed it, Ibrix's CFS and EMC's Clariion arrays. EMGS took the deal -- Stranden had long been a Dell user in other areas of his business -- and was happy with the result. The company now runs 500 Dell Power Edge 1855 blade servers and 12 terabytes (TB) of Clariion CX700s, and can rapidly process from 600 to 700 surveying jobs in its queue system. Stranden said he estimated throughput with the cluster to be 10 times what he'd been able to achieve with NFS.

The giant-cluster collaborations between EMC, Ibrix and Dell first began popping up last summer with an installation at the State University of New York-Buffalo's Center for Computational Research last summer.

According to the SUNY-Buffalo center's director, Dr. Russ Miller, the university received a single bid from Dell that included Ethernet fabrics, as well as Ibrix's cluster and three 10 TB Clariion arrays. Miller added that having Dell as a single point of contact was part of the appeal -- and that the system had been negotiated as a package deal.

After that project came a deal with Pixar, in which Ibrix built an 1800-node megacluster with an EMC back end. According to Steve Duplessie, founder and analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group, in a recent column about the deal, Ibrix and EMC were clearly scratching one another's backs on the deal.

"EMC [Corp.] never had any success breaking into that account nor did Dell [Inc.] for that matter," Duplessie wrote. "Enter little-known Ibrix [Inc.] Its clustered distributed file system let EMC satisfy Pixar's need for collaboration without the "single pipe" bandwidth issues it was limited to with NAS." (See also Duplessie's column, "Behind the Scenes," October 2005)

It could be that Ibrix is quietly helping EMC win deals until it gets its own house in order; there is also some speculation among industry experts that the acquisition-happy storage giant is getting ready to acquire the startup. But some analysts are not convinced that's the case.

"I haven't heard anything [about an acquisition]," said Brad O'Neill, senior analyst with the Taneja Group. But, he added, "Tier-1 player interests in advanced file system technologies have been picking up pace across the board."

"I know that Ibrix has been helping EMC in some big deals, but doubt that anybody is talking about buying them at this point," Duplessie said. "Though you never say never…"

EMC director of public relations Michael Gallant acknowledged, in an e-mail exchange, that Ibrix is e-Lab certified as compatible with EMC products and part of the EMC Support Matrix -- as are hundreds of other companies and products.

"EMC does not resell or OEM any Ibrix solutions," Gallant wrote.

In fact, Gallant claimed that EMC already has its own file system in the Celerra HighRoad NAS head.

"Celerra Highroad leverages a unified SAN/NAS infrastructure to meet the needs of large file, high-bandwidth, collaborative applications," Gallant wrote. "We've made numerous upgrades to this product since its introduction, and we'll do more to improve the product over the coming quarters."

Still, Celerra is not a SAN file system in the purest sense -- it's a NAS head that can attach to a SAN back end, but is not actually built on the SAN itself as Ibrix is.

Gallant also hinted that the recent acquisition of Acxiom could be key to future SAN file system products. "As grid becomes more prominent … storage infrastructures of a variety of formats depending on the business needs will be deployed as part of any grid computing environment and as such, a SAN File System will be one of those choices," he wrote.

Many of EMC's major competitors offer SAN file systems; IBM markets a product called TotalStorage SAN File System (SFS), while HP markets the StorageWorks Scaleable File Share based on the StorageWorks Grid architecture.

IBM calls SAN file systems a "maturing market" and prefers to focus its marketing efforts on its virtualization, SAN Volume Controller but HP reported strong traction.

"There is a high-attach rate for high-bandwidth HP SFS storage on HP's high-performance Linux clusters," HP said in a written statement to "Storage markets are lucrative and growing … for SAN-based file systems."

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