EMC: Going Full-Flash on Primary Storage

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  March 2, 2016

Flash-based storage has played increasingly important roles in business computing for the better part of a decade, beginning in 2008 when EMC became the first Tier 1 vendor to develop and deliver flash options (in the form of solid state drives – SSDs) in its storage portfolio. Since then, the company has become the dominant vendor in flash-based storage with, according to IDC’s latest analysis, nearly 40% of the overall market, or nearly 3X the share of its nearest three competitors combined.

So it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that EMC doubled down on its long-time bets this week by declaring 2016 to be the “Year of All-Flash,” significantly expanding the size/scope of its flash-based solutions and committing to all-flash architectures for future primary storage offerings. This is in preparation for 2020 when the company estimates that all production applications will depend on flash-based storage, relegating traditional disk to archive and content depot use cases.

Is that a reasonable assumption and outlook? Just as importantly, how is EMC planning to get from here to there, and how will these newest announcements and solutions contribute to that journey?

The end of the road for mechanical storage media?

For storage traditionalists, EMC’s belief that disk-based systems are heading toward a well-earned sunset probably comes as a shock. After all, the company became an industry force in the late-1980s and early 1990s by aggressively promoting hard disk drive (HDD)-based storage for enterprise data centers and systems where tape storage dominated.

The company introduced its flagship Symmetrix systems in 1990 and, by 1996, had shipped 1 petabyte of Symmetrix capacity – not much by today’s standards but a very big deal when the cost of a GB of HDD capacity averaged $1,000 to $2,000. EMC was also forward-thinking or, depending on who was listening, radically inclined regarding areas where HDD-based solutions could and should be applied.

For example, in 2001 the company positioned its new HDD-based Centera content-addressed storage (CAS) solutions for archiving and compliance-regulated documents that had long been bastions of tape and optical disk (CD-R/DVD-R) media. EMC’s claim – that the faster read/write performance and falling costs of HDDs made them far better than tape and optical – resonated ever more strongly over time. Today, the optical disk market is all but dead, and tape is mostly used in long-term archiving, “cold” storage and other applications where power efficiency trumps ease of data access.

Ironically, the same essential price + performance arguments EMC used in 2001 can be made today when comparing SSD- and HDD-based storage solutions. In fact, the company noted in one of this week’s announcements that, “Flash is 100 times faster than traditional disk drives and, in combination with advanced array-based data services, has reached price parity and, in many cases, has achieved a price advantage compared with disk.”

It’s important to point out that price/performance isn’t the only benefit Flash offers over disk. Mechanical HDDs, even those built to tolerate the extremes of enterprise data centers, still falter and break down, so replacing them with solid state solutions is highly attractive. Plus, as EMC noted, the ongoing improvements in and evolution of SSDs, “Has reached the point of making all-flash arrays universally accepted for general-purpose enterprise data storage.”

Bottom line: What HDDs once were to tape, Flash now is becoming to HDDs so EMC is pressing firmly ahead toward that future.

EMC’s new array of all-flash arrays

So what all did EMC announce this week during its Quantum Leap to the Modern Data Center event?

  • EMC DSSD D5 Rack-Scale flash – a new category designed to support performance-intensive, traditional and next-generation use cases, such as real-time analytics that require microsecond latencies
  • EMC XtremIO for general purpose/mixed workload/consolidation –including analytics, databases, server virtual machines (VMs) and virtual desktop infrastructures (VDI) that require consistent performance with sub-millisecond latencies
  • EMC VMAX All Flash – for mixed block and file workloads that require “six-nines” of enterprise availability, rich data services, IBM mainframe and IBM i support and scalable storage growth.
  • EMC VNX Series All Flash – for general purpose mixed block and file workloads, and competitively priced for midrange enterprises
  • The new solutions will also serve as building blocks for EMC’s VCE Converged Infrastructure Vblock and VxRack Systems.

The most clearly unique offering here is the new EMC DSSD D5 system that targets the growing market for extreme performance analytics and similar solutions. The other solutions position EMC’s well established flash-based XtremIO platform for general purpose workloads and use cases, or increase all-flash goodness in the company’s mainstream VMAX and VNX lines, and its VCE solution portfolio.

Final analysis

Is EMC indulging in simplistic hyperbole by declaring 2016 the “Year of All-Flash”? Certainly not where the company itself is concerned. These new and updated solutions aim to maintain or extend the company’s Flash market leadership by pushing the envelope at the microsecond response high end and pulling along more traditional enterprise and mid-market customers toward what EMC considers an inevitable, Flash-enabled future.

Whether that future will arrive in full flush/flash by 2020 is highly arguable. Just look at the “death of…” predictions that have stalked the tape industry for years. Though certainly in reduced circumstances since its heyday, tape still generates some $2B in yearly market revenues, mainly by steadily delivering capacity and performance innovations. With their price per GB hovering around 2-3 cents, HDDs will continue to fill important IT roles from the desktop to the data center for years to come.

But that’s not to take away from EMC’s overall strategy which focuses on the continuing need among businesses to move ever faster, especially where emerging use cases are concerned. Of the new EMC solutions, the DSSD D5 system is obviously the Ferrari on the showroom floor—built to deliver the extreme speed and breathtaking latency required for cutting edge real time analytics.

But for my money, the new VMAX and VNX Series All Flash solutions and the XtremIO for general purpose effort are worth keeping a close eye on. Getting mainstream customers onto its bandwagon is what it will really take to get the all-Flash future underway. It’s also important given the activities of EMC competitors, including IBM, which placed an all-Flash stake in the ground a year ago with FlashSystem V900 and V9000 solutions.

Those IBM offerings are clearly targeting the Flash sweet spot occupied by XtremIO. So EMC’s new general purpose solutions, including XtremIO but particularly the VMAX All Flash for IBM z System and IBM i can be interpreted as a well aimed shot across Big Blue’s bow. But this isn’t just a hardware matter though the density, power efficiency and TCO of the new VMAX All Flash are impressive.

EMC has also extended its Service Level Objective (SLO) storage tiering functionality across the VMAX3 line. That should significantly simplify data management to a single (diamond) service level while preserving the platform’s legacy of mission critical availability. Mix in the new VMAX All Flash’s robust, consistent response time and mainframe customers have a lot to smile about. Considering EMC’s decades of experience and success among IBM mainframe customers, this gunnery should be taken seriously.

In essence, EMC’s “Year of All Flash” announcements spotlight a too often neglected point – that storage innovation continually parallels or trumps high profile evolutionary improvements in semiconductors. The company may be looking farther ahead than most customers and some competitors, but it has history – its own and the industry’s – on its side. These new systems may appear wildly exotic now but by 2020 EMC’s Flash-based solutions will likely make today’s products look tame in comparison.

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