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Storage industry looks cautiously at EMC, Cisco and VMware's alliance

EMC, Cisco and VMware disclose alliance to provide private cloud bundles of storage, servers, software and infrastructure, but user are wary of lock-in and seven-figure prices.

Following the official launch of the long-awaited cloud alliance between  EMC Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and VMware Tuesday, enterprise data storage industry experts and customers said they are wary of the trend toward vendor consolidation and the delivery of vertically integrated stacks.

And the price tags of the first integrated products of the alliance – ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions of dollars – will surely prompt customers to take a long look before buying.

The new Virtual Computing Environment coalition (VCE) has four major components: preconfigured product bundles called Vblocks; a joint support and direct sales model; a new joint channel partner program; and a new joint venture services company, Acadia.

Cisco and EMC executives said Acadia will function as a services and integration organization. Cisco vice president of business development Manjula Talreja said the vendors will collaborate on product roadmaps going forward, and will also offer joint direct sales and service support. After a sale, Acadia's services would step in to handle the delivery of Vblocks. Following deployment, Acadia would transfer support of the infrastructure to a joint channel partner/systems integrator, another service provider or the end user.

The vendors Tuesday launched three first Vblock Infrastructure Packages. Vblock 1 and Vblock 2 are shipping now, and Vblock 0 will ship in a few weeks.

The configurations are:


  • Vblock 2 supports between 3,000 and more than 6,000 virtual machines, and consists of Cisco's Unified Computing System (UCS) blade servers, its Nexus 1000V software switch and MDS storage switches, EMC's Symmetrix V-Max storage with RSA security software, and VMware vSphere. EMC vice president of global solutions Todd Pavone said the price of this configuration will be approximately $6 million.
  • Vblock 1 scales between 800 and 3,000 virtual machines, and includes Cisco's UCS, MDS, and Nexus 1000V, EMC's Clariion storage with RSA security, and vSphere. Pavone put the price range of this configuration at between $1 million and $3 million.
  • Vblock 0 will support between 300 and 800 virtual machines and contains the Cisco switches, vSphere and EMC's Celerra multiprotocol storage. Pavone estimated the price range of this configuration at $100,000 and up.
  • EMC's Ionix data center management software can be used to manage Vblocks as a single entity, though Vblocks will also support data center management software from other vendors. VCE plans further reference architectures for backup, but for now backing up Vblocks will be up to the customer and service providers.

    Storage admins watch closely, but wary of lock-in

    This alliance follows a trend this year of consolidation and vertical integration among large IT vendors with the goal of offering preconfigured stacks to customers for rapid deployment. Cisco competitor Brocade Communications Systems Inc. is forming its own alliances with server and application vendors put off by Cisco's rollout of its own servers, including Dell Inc. and Oracle Corp. Oracle itself is offering its Exadata vertically integrated appliances based on the hardware it is acquiring from Sun Microsystems. IBM Corp. also recently announced new vertically integrated products.

    On a webcast to announce VCE, EMC CEO Joe Tucci, Cisco CEO John Chambers and VMware CEO Paul Maritz insisted that the new alliance was driven by customers looking for simpler deployments, and that it does not mean a reduction in users' choices. "View this as if you're in a restaurant and there are two sides to the menu," Tucci said. "One is pre-fixed, where we've chosen the meal and the wines ... all three companies will [also] be offering the other side of the menu, which is the a la carte, where you can take VMware and partner with another server or storage company."

    According to Chambers, "to say this is customer-driven would be an understatement." He said customers are clamoring for the three companies to work better together.

    However, some potential VCE customers are wary of the new lines in the sand being drawn among vendors. "The prices for Vblocks seem high," said Tom Becchetti, who works with a Fortune 200 company that he requested not be identified because of corporate policy forbidding him to use its name publicly. "I would venture to guess that I'd be able to negotiate a better pricing structure individually than with the added overhead of a combined organization."

    David Grant, a data center manager with a large communications company he also requested not be identified, said he prefers to come up with his own recipe for IT. "Obviously these guys are in business to make money, and the more of your data center they own, the more money they make, so good for them," he said. "But it may not be the best thing for your business."

    Grant said he was planning to watch the new coalition, but is concerned about getting locked in with one vendor. He also said it seemed VMware may be in a difficult position as a result of the new alliance. "Some of the moves they've taken to protect their market share are a bit confusing," Grant said. "Virtualization is almost like open source – it's been platform agnostic. To try to start grabbing it all is a dangerous business."

    Scott Lowe, national technical lead for virtualization with VMware and NetApp reseller VAR ePlus Inc., also said he and his clients would be taking a wait-and-see approach. "In the grander scheme of things, just this one announcement in itself doesn't justify concern," he said. "But in light of the greater industry trend, it could ultimately bring us to a world of tightly integrated stacks where users do lose choice."

    However, Lowe said swinging too far in the other direction, with all "mix-and-match" products customers have to put together themselves, isn't ideal either. "The industry has to find some equilibrium," he said. "No alliances mean you might miss out on some efficiencies."

    As the news filtered in to the 451 Group's Client Conference in Boston, Mass., 451 Group principal analyst John Abbott pointed out that "we do see users who are looking to buy racks preconfigured—we do see people buying on that level a lot more. " But customers often have a preferred systems integrator they already work with for those configurations, Abbott noted, saying deployments of vertical stacks might be limited to a niche of shops which already have a big loyalty to one vendor.

    A tangled web of alliances and shifting competition

    StorageIO analyst Greg Schulz said it will be important to keep an eye on how Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. and Microsoft react. "A majority of all guests in virtual machines are Windows-based – surely if their approach is going in to where VMware has had success, shouldn't Microsoft be invited into the ecosystem?" he said.

    Meanwhile, HP has already been alienated by Cisco's UCS. But "I don't see HP and VMware running away from each other – they both need each other," Schulz said.

    Lee Johns, HP's marketing director for unified storage, said HP will remain agnostic when it comes to supporting VMware and Hyper-V. However, he was critical of the VCE concept. "It remains to be seen how a coalition that will the strain relationships of those vendors with other vendors is going to progress," he said. "If you look at where Cisco and EMC are in the server business, it's not very far. If you really want a converged infrastructure, you have to own the IP and not be brought together by committee."

    EMC partner Dell Inc. also criticized the VCE approach. "The VMware, Cisco and EMC joint venture assumes that customers are looking for closed technology architectures that lock them into a restricted vendor stack," Praveen Asthana, VP, enterprise storage and networking said in a statement. "This proprietary implementation of industry standard architectures is a throwback to the 1990s."

    Wikibon analyst David Vellante said VCE will also have to make an arrangement with Oracle if the goal is to virtualize all applications in the data center. "Today, the focus [for virtualization] is around consolidating the infrastructure and getting better utilization, and the next phase becomes encapsulating applications," he said. "Then, what about databases? Oracle is holding an extremely important wild card – I don't see how you get to the private cloud without going through Oracle."


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