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Will EMC's new Symmetrix be enough to win users

EMC is prepping a new model of its high-end Symmetrix array, and the users want to see changes. The preliminary reports show bigger, faster hardware, but will EMC finally open its doors to an open architecture?

As speculation swirls around the new array from EMC Corp., users and experts are weighing in on what they expect, want and need to see in a new Symmetrix.

EMC's president and CEO, Joe Tucci, is expected to pull back the curtain on the Symmetrix 6 at a press conference scheduled for Feb. 3, and the storage industry is abuzz with early news. A number of enhancements to EMC's biggest box have been reported. The new model is expected to have a modular design instead of monolithic, a 2G bit/sec Fibre Channel disk array enclosure (DAE) and support for 512 Fibre Channel hard drives.

Additionally, the Symmetrix 6 is expected to feature more cache, up to 256G bytes and 128 Fibre Channel ports, as well as Seagate's 146G byte, 10,000 rpm disk drives and its 73G byte, 15,000 rpm drives.

Perhaps the biggest change on deck for Symmetrix 6 will be the ability to mirror data over IP using Symmetrix Remote Data Facility (SRDF). A partnership with Cisco Systems Inc. and Hopkinton, Mass-based EMC has spawned a Gigabit Ethernet device called an eBlade, which pushes data over IP between Symmetrix arrays.

EMC would not confirm or deny that a new Symmetrix was on the way, but company spokesman Dave Farmer said that EMC is in the middle of the most aggressive product rollout in the company's history. "In the third quarter [of 2002] alone, we introduced 12 new products and services and will complete a refresh of our entire product line over the next three months," Farmer said.

However, users might have to wait longer than a few months to get a switched architecture in EMC's biggest box. Symmetrix 6 will continue to utilize a PCI-X bus architecture.

As a customer, Jim Cockrill, business development manager for Compqsoft Inc., an IT services company based in Houston, has not had much luck squeezing EMC for details about the Symmetrix 6, but he does have concerns about it. "Why they have delayed presenting a switched architecture is beyond me," he said.

Cockrill still doubts EMC's commitment to basing the Symmetrix on an open architecture.

"In my opinion, EMC has never been, nor does it ever want to be an open architecture," Cockrill said. "The new Symmetrix 6 may be modular in design, but I doubt if it is truly an open architecture.

"They chose a really sweet drive with the Cheetah 10,000 and 15,000 rpm models. I cannot fault them there. I am curious to see how they will further mesh the Clariion technology into a unified product line. It does seem that they are blurring the defined lines between what is EMC and what is Clariion."

Cockrill also expects the eBlade technology to make a big splash. "In my opinion, they will not be able to keep that new blade from Cisco in stock," he said. "I cannot imagine any current EMC customer that will not highly consider the eBlade, unless the pricing is too outrageous to be a consideration."

Rich Savage, systems programmer for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska, said that despite a solid working relationship with EMC, his team is always wondering whether products from IBM Corp. or Hitachi Data Systems Corp. would provide more bang for the buck.

"The one thing I would like to see is some [cut-and-dry] tools to manage the boxes to see what the actual performance is," he said.

Right now, Savage runs two Symmetrix arrays, an 8730 with 4T bytes of space for an OS/390 system and an 8830 with 3.5T bytes of space for open systems devices.

Capacity is a constant problem. "It seems that every time we look to buy more disk, the question is what else is out there in the marketplace," Savage said. "Capacity is always an issue for us, as we seem to grow about 20-25% annually on the open systems side. I would like to see a bigger box with more connection availability, so we don't have to continue to buy more frames."

Savage said his IT organization would probably not evaluate the new box yet but that it may take a look next year to ensure it's using the right hardware for its business.

Independent storage expert and author Marc Farley said it is obvious that the Symmetrix 6 has changed significantly from its initial design plans. He said the main change is the continued use of an internal bus architecture, as opposed to using switching technology.

Farley said packaging options and management software will tell the tale of how useful Symmetrix 6 will be to customers.

"Most of the recent buzz about the product has centered on packaging and performance, but management software will probably end up being the most important element in the product's success," he said.

EMC is reported to be using Fibre Channel disk drives in Symmetrix 6. Farley said that while the Fibre Channel drives are getting a fair amount of attention, users won't be sold on drive technology alone.

"Characteristics of Fibre Channel drives such as dual porting and the scalability of drives per channel are important, but they are not going to drive purchase decisions. There is virtually no way to create value with disk drives of any kind," Farley said.

EMC turned its focus to management software in 2002, and management software could be the most interesting part of the new Symmetrix, according to Farley. He said there are two sides to this story, both of which could result in the company picking its own pocket in different areas. First, there is the ability to allow customers to use EMC software to do more with the Symmetrix 6 on their own, which has the potential impact of reducing professional services revenue for EMC. Second, there is the ability for third-party software managers to manage the Symmetrix 6, which has the potential to undermine EMC's own emerging software strategies, Farley said.

It remains to be seen whether EMC will stake its claim to some form of open systems storage management leadership by coming out with a usable common information model (CIM) application programming interface that works with management software from other vendors. Farley said that developing this type of open management software is much more difficult than it looks. "It's not a necessity for the announcement," he said, "but it would be an important achievement and a bit of a milestone for the company."


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Let us know what you think of this story. E-mail Kevin Komiega, News Writer

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