EMC's VPLEX & Planned Takeover of DataDirect Networks

Talk to the average Storage Engineer who manages the growth of your datacenter’s modular system about Petaflops, Exabytes, Petabytes of Archives or 1TB of sustained bandwidth and you’ll probably find them scratching their heads in disbelief. This is the reality that does exist in the world of super computing and what is sometimes referred to as Extreme Storage. While some Storage Managers would feel they are suffering with their exponential data growth and decreasing budgets, their problems can’t be classified as ‘Extreme’ unless they’re dealing with ExaBytes (1018 bytes) of storage with trillions of data transactions per second, trillions of files and a data transfer rate from storage to application that exceeds a TB per second. Couple that with the conundrum that it’s for relatively few users and requires the data to be secure, both for short-term and long-term retention and then you have a real case for Extreme Storage……. well at least for now.

Such figures though are not the concern of the average datacenter manager or storage vendors with architectures that are catered and designed for IOPS centric database driven applications so much so that even SNIA has yet to give Extreme Storage the relevance of a definition in their Storage Dictionary. Not EMC though, where if my sources are correct, they deem Extreme Storage not only a key to their own future but also that of the Storage industry’s such that they are already concocting an audacious takeover plan of the company DataDirect Networks.

Before I embark upon my controversial claim, let’s rewind back a few weeks to EMC World, Boston where most of the buzz centred on the launch of the new VPLEX. A nifty idea that would take cloud computing enthusiasts to an ever approaching reality by creating heterogeneous pools of storage that can be accessed and shared over a distance. Couple that with VMware integration and you have the ability to VMotion your applications across datacenters that are miles apart - a great idea and one that strikes a double whammy at both Storage vendors HDS/IBM/HP/NetApp and the virtualisation ‘catch-up guys’ MS Hyper-V and Red Hat. As IT Directors yearn for a virtual infrastructure for their applications that goes beyond the physical limitations of the datacenter, EMC’s trump card of setting up a centrally managed pool of virtual resources spread across numerous datacenters via VPLEX is nothing short of a ‘virtual’ revolution. With Site Recovery Manager, VMware already had the edge over their competitors by in essence providing an extended version of their ‘high availability’ concept that could span across data centers. With VPLEX the VMotion concept of moving a virtual server across physical platforms ‘on the fly’ can now also be extended across datacenters. Moreover while EMC have currently failed to corner the market of virtualisation of heterogeneous storage dominated by HDS and IBM with their product Invista, the launch of the VPLEX now takes that battle head on with the added value of cross-site virtualisation. So how then does this link to my bold prediction that Extreme Storage is next on EMC’s radar with more significantly a proposed takeover of the company DDN?

The VPLEX model is poised to have four versions, two of which are already available namely VPLEX Local and VPLEX Metro with VPLEX Geo and VPLEX Global to follow suit. VPLEX Local is the straightforward virtualisation of heterogeneous storage systems behind one management pane within your datacenter, a solution that has successfully been offered by HDS for several years. VPLEX Metro though allows the concept to stretch up to 100km, hence enabling the virtualisaion of storage spanning datacenters across cities. Based on a combination of hardware and software which is placed between the traditional FC attached storage systems and the servers, the VPLEX rack virtualizes the heterogeneous mix of disk arrays into what EMC term ‘a federated pool of virtual storage’. As for the hardware itself, it contains a management server, FC switches, Ethernet switches, the standard redundant power supplies and the VPLEX engines. Within each engine rests a pair of quad core Intel CPUs and directors which each contain 32 FC ports with 8Gbps bandwidth. With an active-active cluster spread over one to four VPLEX engines the requirements to seamlessly VMotion applications across a 100km distance is more than easily met, hence being coined VPLEX Metro. The question that now stands is for the proposed VPLEX Geo and VPLEX Global i.e. would such hardware and performance stats add up for say data that needs to be VMotioned across continents as the name suggests? Indeed such distances and endeavours would not be the requirement of EMC’s regular customer base of industries that demand financial transaction processing but rather those that are facing a content nightmare and need the expertise and performance figures that are associated with Extreme Storage.

When you’re talking Extreme Storage you’re talking DDN i.e. DataDirect Networks. While relatively unknown, DDN still possess an impressive resume of HPC clients from NASA, Lawrence Livermore Laboratories to movie special effects users like Pacific Title & Art Studio. Thus as far as being a company that can act as a platform from which EMC can build out its ‘global’ and ‘geo’ cloud storage offerings, DDN already have credible references to do so quite easily.

Furthermore a potential acquisition of DDN will allow EMC to penetrate a HPC customer base that they’re currently unfamiliar to. Fields ranging from High Energy Physics companies such as Fermilab, Nuclear research organisations such as CERN, particle physics research companies such as DESY to National Security and Intelligence are all potential clients that EMC could take on with a new Extreme Storage Platform that incorporates VPLEX and deals with large data that is locally or globally distributed with long-term retention. It would clearly give EMC a major distinction from its current major competitors.

Ironically though it’s one of EMC’s current competitors, HP that have already made moves into Extreme Storage with their Ibrox based HP 9100 Extreme. The HP 9100 was marketed as an Extreme Storage system and was shamelessly targeting Web companies and their like who required multipetabytes of data storage. HP’s aim was to profit from an emerging market of heavy users such as ever growing and popular social networks with their online subscriber information and video content as well as users of video surveillance systems and research organizations. While this was a brave attempt even HP had to concede to DDN’s supremacy and expertise in the field when they only this week agreed an OEM relationship for DataDirect Networks (DDN)’s S2A9900 disk array to be bundled with the Lustre File System resold by the SCI group within HP. Indeed HP are now like every large HPC OEM vendor out there – reselling DDN. With partnerships already with IBM, Dell and SGI, the one big name missing from the list is EMC. Now with the VPLEX Global and Geo offering soon to be unveiled, a relationship with DDN whether it be an acquisition or OEM seems inevitable.

In fact DDN and EMC are certainly no strangers to each other, when last year the former launched a direct onslaught on EMC's Atmos cloud storage product with their Web-Optimised Scaler (WOS). Designed for geographically dispersed global storage clouds, the WOS is a geo-cluster of quasi-filers that store objects with an API-access to a global namespace. Boasting scalability that is currently growing beyond 200 billion files of storage and 1 million file reads per second for objects, such stats are effortlessly achieved through the simultaneous access of numerous WOS boxes. Hence not only flooring EMC's Atmos in terms of transaction rates and file retrieval rates, being a file-based product the WOS also hits the EMC NAS jugular namely the Celerra. As for how the WOS works on a global scale; the storing of objects, which are files or groups of files are each given a unique object number which identifies the datacenter containing the WOS system that stores the object and the object itself. Datacenters are linked via WOS nodes which form the WOS cloud while the WOS API is used to access servers to read or write objects to the WOS cloud. A straightforward concept but the question now is how much of this explanation will replace the word DDN with EMC and WOS with VPLEX Global come the launch of the latest EMC masterplan? Put this in the wider context of the upcoming VPLEX Geo and Global, and I have little doubt that EMC Execs (renowned for preferring to spend outrageously than OEM a potential competitor) are furiously sharpening their pencils, carefully concocting a takeover of the still relatively small yet growing company that is DDN.

After the rapidly swift takeover of Data Domain last year, nothing surprises me anymore with regards to the financial clout of EMC. So while a takeover of DDN will not only bring about the removal of the competitive edge that DDN currently poses and enable EMC’s vision of ‘VPLEXing’ across the globe to become an instant reality, the benefits of such a deal would bring even more so to EMC’s constantly growing portfolio. In the words of Bob Dylan,“Times are a changing” and the digital content explosion brought about by the rapid growth of online, nearline and backup data pools has left the traditional storage systems designed by EMC and their like defunct and inadequate to compete in such a vast growing market. Like a crumbling empire the domination of transactional data that factored so heavily in the design of storage systems has ended with an unscrupulous coup de etat of unstructured data requiring extreme performance, scalability and density becoming the mainstream. EMC have clocked on to this and are pushing their future be involved in this direction. Should a DDN deal go through, EMC will not only have advanced themselves into a new customer base but would also bring in vast technical expertise ranging from high-speed FPGA parity calculation accelerators instead of RAID systems, high speed Infiniband interconnects etc. that can only enhance their current Enterprise and Modular range. As for EMC’s direct competitors such as HP, IBM, HDS etc. who will they have to turn to for an OEM deal or expertise should they also decide to enter the fast growing market trend towards Extreme Storage……perhaps EMC themselves if these predicted developments are to bear fruit.