Today is a very big day for EMC -- and for the broader storage industry.
EMC has announced an entirely new approach to high-end storage architecture -- nothing more, and nothing less.
I think it's going to take a while for people to fully appreciate what's been done here, and what it means going forward.
Say what you will about EMC, but we're not afraid to make very big bets on very big ideas -- and that's what we've done here.
A Short Primer On High-End Storage
People unfamiliar with the storage marketplace may look at high-end storage arrays and ask "what's the big deal?", not fully appreciating the storage needs of larger enterprises.
These devices first became very popular in the mid-1990s as computing and storage demands began to explode in larger enterprises.
Perhaps their most distinguishing feature is that they use multiple controllers and large caches to deliver excellent performance as well as the utmost in availability.
When I first came to EMC, my job was to convince Big Unix types that an intelligent cached disk array was a good thing. Indeed, the whole idea of sharing storage betwen servers was relatively new at the time.
I think EMC succeeded in that regard :-)
Many of the storage features most people take for granted -- snaps, remote replication, etc. -- first become popular on high-end arrays.
Big, high-end arrays still represent a sizable multi-billion dollar chunk of the market each and every year.
Why? I think there will always be IT environments that need the utmost in storage scale, performance, functionality, and so on.
The market has essentially narrowed to two stalwart vendors: EMC and Hitachi. Most people would exclude IBM from this category as -- technically speaking -- none of their products fit this architectural definition. And, besides, they've been out of the game for quite a while :-)
And, just to be complete, both Fujitsu and NEC offer products that could theoretically compete in this segment, but -- again -- we don't see much of them, either.
Thinking Outside The Box
For as long as I can remember, high-end storage arrays followed a basic architectural theme: multiple I/O controllers, big cache cards, and some sort of local interconnect -- a big bus (e.g. early Symmetrix 5000), or an internal switch (e.g. Hitachi USP) or perhaps a mesh fabric (e.g. Symmetrix DMX)
In many ways, the architecture defined many attributes about the array -- what was a reasonable entry point, how big it could scale, how fast it could go, how linear was the scaling, how redundant it was, how cost-effective, and so on.
Perhaps the most significant innovation in the V-Max is its unique architecture. Its intelligence is assembled from rather modest building blocks, each composed of industry standard components, and each containing its own self-contained I/O and cache memory, much like you'd find on a high-end CLARiiON array controller.
What makes it special is that -- thanks to the new virtual matrix -- multiples of these building blocks appear and behave exactly like they were one giant array. Underneath the covers, there's a shared memory architecture that unifies them into a single virtual "box".
Modular? Monolithic? Clustered? Tightly Coupled? Hybrid?
Symmetrix V-Max defies neat categorizations, although I'm sure people will try to hang some sort of inevitably incorrect name off of it.
The lines have been permanently blurred.
But Hasn't That Been Done Before?
Yes and no. You might be familiar with other mid-tier storage designs that appear to do something similar, but there are some very key differences.
First, none of these smaller players are using a coherent-memory architecture. Instead, they're doing simple message-passing to coordinate their activities and communicate state. This is a potentially interesting approach for certain mid-tier environments, but not nearly fast enough or robust enough for the high-end. I'm sure one of the other EMC bloggers did a post on the interconnect technology used in V-Max -- it's not garden-variety ethernet or Infiniband.
Second, none of these smaller players can get really, really big like the V-Max can. The overall architecture can eventually grow into literally thousands of ports, thousands of processing cores, tens of thousands of disks, and many terabytes of cache memory -- all operating as a single, tightly-coupled array.
Simply put, there's nothing remotely like V-Max in the marketplace today, so -- if you're an IT architect -- it's probably worth your time to understand some of the key differences it brings to the table.
So, What's The Big Deal?
Actually, there are several "big deals", so let's go through them.
First, the most obvious difference is entry cost. For roughly the price of a big CLARiiON, a customer can get into a roughly equivalent Symmetrix V-Max. The "high-end storage is more expensive than mid-tier storage" canard is gone.
The difference between the two? The V-Max can grow and grow from that modest starting point -- still capturing the economics of mid-tier arrays and linear cost scaling.
Second, the V-Max array isn't limited to a single cabinet with short wires. Think in terms of multiple cabinets, separated by many meters or -- in the future -- longer distances using optical connections -- all behaving as a single, giant array.
Third, the scaling is utterly linear and modular. As more building blocks are added, the array gets bigger and bigger, and there's no need to replace the frame, buy a bigger cabinet, etc. -- nothing gets thrown away.
Fourth, there's no assumption that all the building blocks are exactly the same. Some may be big, some may be small, some may be old, some may be new.
The entire concept of "upgrades" takes on an entirely different (and attractive) characteristic.
And that's just for starters ...
Rethinking Storage Virtualization
Any storage functionality can appear in one of three places: at the server layer, in the storage network, or in the array itself.
Storage virtualization is no exception. If you want multiple arrays to appear like a single big one for purposes of pooling and/or migration, you have similar choices.
You could use either clustered file systems or volume managers to achieve the desired effect at the server level. Many people do this.
You could put something in the data path -- an appliance (SVC), an intelligent switch (Invista) or another storage array (USP) to achieve the same effect.
But -- up to now -- there were few good examples of storage virtualization being provided within the array itself -- multiple arrays "peering" to create a single, enormous logical entity.
In one sense, V-Max introduces yet another distinct and unique flavor of storage virtualization into the industry discussion that can now be compared and contrasted with other approaches.
No, V-Max can't be used to pool a bunch of legacy heterogenous storage -- and there certainly are a lot of people stuck with all sorts of junk on their data center floors -- but it can be used to solve many of the management and migration challenges that show up in large-scale environments, and do so in a uniquely elegant and seamless manner.
And I should point out that using this internal approach, it's a whole lot cheaper and easier than trying to do it externally -- homogenous storage virtualization can now be thought of as an integral feature of the architecture, rather than an add-on.
I'm sure we're going to be having some interesting discussions on this aspect of the V-Max :-)
FAST Permanently Redefines Storage Economics
As if there wasn't enough cool stuff to talk about, we've got to spend some time on the forthcoming FAST capability -- fully automated storage tiering.
Simply put, it's one of those things that permanently changes the game in storage economics once it's fully understood. And changes it in a very big and meaningful way.
By intelligently and dynamically mixing enterprise flash, FC and low-cost SATA into virtual drives, enterprise storage has all at once become much faster and much cheaper -- and with almost no effort on the part of the storage administrator.
The beauty is that its value isn't limited to special situations like dedupe and spin-down -- this approach works across the board on almost any use case.
I'll leave it to others (such as The Storage Anarchist) to do the in-depth explanation of how FAST works (definitely worth the investment in your time), but its impact is clear -- the market will quickly become segmented into arrays that have this feature, and those that don't.
Everything Changes, And Nothing Changes
Sure, you can look at Symmetrix V-Max, and appreciate that it's a radical departure from what's come before it.
I think at this point it's fair to remind people that the V-Max is still a Symmetrix: it runs the full Enginuity code stack, and supports all the myriad and cool features that have made EMC #1 in this market.
I think it's also important to point out that the current DMX-4 architecture isn't going away -- it's still the market leader in this category, and is doing quite well, thank you. Not everyone needs a V-Max.
The Symmetrix V-Max is in addition to -- and not a replacement for -- the current DMX-4 line.
And The Inevitable Private Cloud Discussion
If you follow this blog, you might appreciate how the new V-Max fits into the broader private cloud concept.
Simply put, data centers need to look more like clouds, and clouds need to look more like data centers -- hence the concept of a private cloud.
Paul Maritz talks about the ability of virtualization to create a single, giant computer that can take hundreds (or eventually thousands) of ordinary server components and make them look and behave as one.
Cisco's UCS takes that same thinking and applies it to large-scale blade farms with unified connectivity and management.
And -- in one sense -- EMC takes that same thinking and applies it to high-end storage arrays: multiple, independent storage controllers that behave and operate as a single, giant storage array.
Operating system. Server. Storage.
I love it when a plan comes together ...
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