by Stephen Lawson

Joining the Unified Storage Crowd

May 12, 20113 mins

EMC is catching up as it adapts its product line to support unified storage. Can it maintain its influence?

  • Company: EMC
  • Headquarters: Hopkinton, Mass.
  • Employees: 48,500
  • 2010 Revenue: $17 billion
  • CEO: Joe Tucci
  • What They Do: EMC is one of the world’s largest enterprise storage companies, but it has expanded into other areas, including virtualization (via a controlling stake in VMware), and security (by acquiring RSA). EMC, VMware and Cisco formed a partnership last year to sell complete infrastructures for virtualized data centers.

The Pitch

Most data-center storage systems being shipped today still use traditional block-based technology. But much of the current information explosion involves unstructured content such as digital media, which is often stored in file-based systems.

Although the balance is shifting to file-based storage (which analysts say is easier to provision and manage with virtualized servers), a typical enterprise will have to manage both types of storage for a long time.

Unified storage combines file-based and block-based storage in one system. EMC took aim at the technology last year with its VNX platform, an array that can be configured partly for block storage and partly for files. For smaller organizations, it introduced the VNXe, a fully unified system. Both can reduce power consumption, space requirements and management costs, says Eric Herzog, vice president of product management and product marketing for unified storage at EMC.

The catch

EMC went into unified storage long after rival NetApp, which still offers the most advanced unified technology, industry analysts say. Some critics have said EMC’s VNX, with its two sets of microcode, is more a pair of systems, which come in one box and share a single management interface, than a true unified platform. VNX also still uses two applications, sold in a suite, for data replication. (They will be merged over time, EMC says.)

The company was forced to design VNX this way because it created the product out of two older platforms, Clariion and Celerra, says Forrester Research analyst Andrew Reichman. “You’d never choose to build that.”

EMC counters that the dual-microcode approach is better than a fully unified system because if one part of the array fails, the other can keep working. But that capability has marginal value to users, says Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Mark Peters, who thinks NetApp’s products match VNX for resiliency.

The score

There’s no mistaking EMC’s seriousness about its new direction. It is discontinuing the Clariion and Celerra products. And for VNXe, the company is building a new sales channel. “They have committed themselves thoroughly to going down this integrated/unified route” and streamlining an overly complicated product lineup, Peters says.

VNX and VNXe sales have been good, says EMC’s Herzog. But NetApp is growing; in 2010, it rose from sixth to third place in overall storage revenue as its sales increased 51 percent. Although the major research firms don’t measure the unified storage market by itself, NetApp is said to dominate it. Pillar Data Systems, a specialized vendor, is recognized as a technical pioneer in unified storage, while Hewlett-Packard and Dell are pursuing their own approaches to the technology.

However, EMC remains the world’s largest enterprise storage vendor with 26 percent of the market as measured by factory revenue, according to IDC (a sister company to CIO’s publisher). And EMC’s ability to repeatedly transform itself—as with its embrace of cloud technology and its move toward virtualization with the VMware acquisition—is a core strength, says Peters. Meanwhile, EMC has also used its market presence to draw attention to unified storage, which, Peters adds, needed “the blessing of an industry giant.”