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IBM-Red Hat deal raises no storage red flags yet

Storage practitioners say they expect Red Hat's 'new overlords' at IBM to tread lightly on Red Hat storage, despite potential product overlaps after the $34 billion deal closes.

Open source storage practitioners say they have no major concerns -- yet -- as IBM's $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat nears its targeted completion in the second half of the year.

Storage wasn't the motivating force behind the Oct. 28 IBM-Red Hat deal -- the largest ever for a software company. But IBM stands to inherit Red Hat's Gluster file system and multiprotocol Ceph software-defined storage, as well as the company's OpenShift Container Storage and Hyperconverged Infrastructure products that use Gluster and Ceph.

"For the most part, it really doesn't affect what I do," said Sage Weil, principal architect for Ceph at Red Hat, during a birds-of-a-feather session at last week's annual customer conference. "It doesn't affect our priorities. We're really focused on the Ceph side about making the best open source storage platform possible. And on the Red Hat side, [it's] about making the best hybrid multi-cloud storage for Kubernetes and OpenShift and OpenStack. And that's not changing."

Weil helped design Ceph as part of his graduate research at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and continued to shepherd the open source storage technology as founder and CTO at Inktank. He joined Red Hat in 2014 with its $175 million cash deal to purchase his startup. Weil said he has fielded lots of questions about the "new overlords" in the aftermath of the IBM-Red Hat deal.

"I think my main concern about the acquisition is just that the red-hat/blue-hat jokes are going to keep coming, and I'm not sure when they're going to stop," Weil said.

He noted the Ceph Foundation launched last November, with a mix of 31 technology vendors and educational and government institutions, to support the open source community. The Ceph Foundation is organized under the Linux Foundation, which is also home to the Cloud Native Computing Foundation's Kubernetes and Rook projects.

"My primary loyalty is to the Ceph open source project that I've been working on before I came to Red Hat, before I started Inktank, before any of this," Weil said. "So, if I were concerned, I'm not sure I would be here."

IBM-Red Hat software-defined storage

IBM sells its own line of software-defined storage products that, in some cases, cover similar ground to Red Hat's storage portfolio. For instance, IBM Cloud Object Storage has the potential to compete against Red Hat's Ceph, which is noted for its object storage in addition to supporting block and file interfaces.

IBM's file storage includes Spectrum Scale, built on its block-based General Parallel File System, and Spectrum NAS, based on technology licensed from Swedish startup Compuverde, which Pure Storage bought last month. Red Hat has the distributed Gluster file system, as well as Ceph FS, which runs on top of object storage.

Neither IBM nor Red Hat has commented on long-term plans for the potentially overlapping storage software products.

"Nothing that I can talk about right now, because we are still operating as a separate business," said Ranga Rangachari, vice president and general manager of Red Hat storage. "Together, we feel that it's a great opportunity to help customers with their hybrid cloud journey. That's kind of the true north for us."

In the meantime, Rangachari said, "it's business as usual for us. Nothing's changed from that perspective."

Red Hat's distributions of open source software-defined storage are designed to run on commodity server hardware, and it's unclear how IBM might position its infrastructure options once the acquisition closes. IBM sold off its x86 server business in 2014 to Lenovo for $2.1 billion and retained its Power Systems and Z mainframe lines. IBM also sells hybrid and flash SAN arrays and tape hardware.

Red Hat Summit keynote
IBM CEO Ginni Rometty and Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst discuss IBM's pending acquisition of Red Hat during the Red Hat Summit in Boston.

IBM-Red Hat storage could be complementary

Bryan Smith, a senior cloud architect at ORock Technologies, said IBM storage could be a helpful complement for Red Hat, especially among customers with SAN investments. Smith has worked extensively with Red Hat Ceph and Gluster at ORock, which is a Premier Red Hat Certified Cloud and Service Provider partner. He said some customers might not be ready to step out of their "comfort zone" and put critical data stores on Ceph or Gluster right away. But divisions within those companies might need analytics functionality that is better suited to scalable and customizable software-defined storage such as Ceph, he said.

"IBM, for the most part, won't be too much of an overlap," Smith predicted.

Smith admitted the pending Red Hat sale raises concerns about the fate of business units, such as sales, that IBM may view as redundant. But he said he doesn't think IBM will tamper with engineering "too much."

"I don't really see software-defined storage and some of the software-defined infrastructure gutting any of IBM's business," Smith said. "Or, IBM will transform those businesses and say, 'OK, this product's getting old in the tooth. This is a good time to start pushing Red Hat here.'"

IBM-Red Hat culture

One commonly expressed concern is the potential impact to Red Hat's open source culture. But John LaRue, a technical adviser at Quantum Corp., said he has seen IBM's name all over the kernel code for the KVM hypervisor and noted IBM's contributions to many other open source projects. LaRue said he hopes IBM won't make many changes at Red Hat.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty underscored her company's long-standing commitment to open source during last week's Red Hat Summit. She pointed to its 1974 work on System R, a precursor to the relational database, and its $1 billion investment in Linux in 1999. Rometty noted the importance of Linux and Kubernetes in connecting public and private clouds and traditional systems in the future.

"We are on a mission to scale open source," she said.

"It's not like I have a death wish over $34 billion," Rometty said, recalling a statement she often makes to Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. "So, I'm not buying them to destroy them by any stretch. I want them to be successful."

IBM has no incentive to change Red Hat from operating as it does today, said Chris Lanteigne, head of infrastructure and operations at City Electric Supply in Dallas. Lanteigne said his company is considering Red Hat's OpenShift Container Storage with Ceph as it shifts to a DevOps model. He noted that IBM has been shifting into services, more so than hard products, for years.

"There's really no value to them to lock [technology] away again," Lanteigne said.

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Well, back in November 2015 IBM agreed to pay $1.3B for Cleversafe and its object storage software intellectual property. Cleversafe had significant federal government customers, including the CIA. IBM knows the value of taking care of its federal government customers. In contrast, the Red Hat storage products (Ceph and Gluster) were not primary to the deal and since IBM is keeping Red Hat independent it won't be a concern in the near term. Ceph has its following in the OpenStack and open source communities. It doesn't do the things that Cleversafe can do for IBM's enterprise customers. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty says she has no "death wish" to screw-up the $34B acquisition of Red Hat. Why? Because Red Hat is vitally important to IBM's push into the on-premises private cloud and hybrid cloud market. Microsoft and VMware are already there. IBM needs to be a player in this market.  Its enterprise customers are IBM's major source of revenue and Red Hat's contribution to IBM's annual is needed for the long term.
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