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EMC sees software-defined storage as storage virtualization done right

EMC execs call storage virtualization the missing link to the software-defined data center, and plan to change that with software-defined storage.

The noise around software-defined storage is about to get much louder now that EMC Corp. has thrown its considerable heft behind it.

Software-defined storage was a key theme of the EMC/VMware Strategic Forum Wednesday. EMC CEO Joe Tucci said his company is doing "very innovative and very advanced" software-defined storage activity.

"I think you'll see some magic," he said.

The major theme of the day was actually software-defined data centers, but EMC executives mostly concentrated on the storage aspects of the strategy. VMware, which is owned mostly by EMC, focused primarily on plans for software-defined networking and its new hybrid cloud plans, while EMC executives talked about flash and software.

The flash segment was a rehash of last week's XtremIO launch, but EMC's software vision is a new approach to storage virtualization. It follows the VMware mantra: abstract, pool and virtualize.

Amitabh Srivastava, president of EMC's advanced storage division, did a deep dive on EMC's software-defined storage plans. He said the software-defined data center will require virtualization of compute, networks and storage.

"Storage virtualization is the piece that has been missing," he added.

EMC has been down this road before, along with most of the major storage array vendors. Its plans from eight years ago to enable customers to pool and manage storage across arrays from different vendors never caught on (remember Invista?), and now it is taking a different approach, borrowing concepts from VMware's success with server virtualization.

Srivastava said EMC is developing lightweight applications that create a virtual pool on top of storage arrays from EMC and competitors. He said this software consists of adapters, which are drivers that talk to the arrays. They even work on commodity hardware.

EMC pledges to publish open APIs for its new virtualization software, so even its rivals can build adapters. "We will open source the related code," Srivastava said.

He said the software will sit in the control path rather than the data path. Customers will be able to use it to partition virtual storage arrays in similar fashion to the way server admins can partition virtual servers. Virtual arrays will be managed at the abstract layer "and can be automated because we can talk to each array and it can be managed through policies."

EMC is using APIs to write data services that span underlying arrays. Examples of these services include object storage and Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS).

"We will also put objects on files," Srivastava said, allowing applications to access files while giving them properties of object storage. He talked about having an object and file interface for data on arrays, such as EMC's Isilon scale-out network-attached storage (NAS) platform.

He said EMC will support industry object storage APIs from platforms such as Amazon S3, OpenStack Swift and EMC Atmos.

"This is what storage virtualization should have been in the first place," Srivastava said. "We are abstracting the software from the hardware; we're making sure management can be done on the abstract layer and automated through policies. Data services for arrays can be written in software once on top of the platform, and they don't have to be added over and over again to each array."

EMC executives said they will start rolling out these storage services over the next few months, with a full suite available later this year.

Virtual battle brewing?

VMware also plans to go deep into software-defined storage. "We see this as an enormous year in storage as we deliver software-defined storage," said VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger, mostly around expanding the firm's Virtual SAN technology.

Raghu Raghuram, VMware's executive vice president of cloud infrastructure and management, briefly laid out VMware's software-defined storage plans. He said the goal is to "create a new persistent platform that exploits the capacity of local disk and flash that are part of every server. We're changing the definition of hypervisor. It's no longer enough for a hypervisor to virtualize CPU and memory. A hypervisor will be judged going forward by whether it virtualizes the storage."

And VMware is carrying out its storage plans independently of EMC. Tucci said VMware had a free hand, despite a potential for conflict with its parent. "Even if VMware wants to do something in storage that EMC doesn't like it to do, we tell them, 'Go do it,'" he said.

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