IBM and Cleversafe – The Objective Value of Object Storage

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  October 7, 2015

IBM’s announced purchase of Cleversafe, a Chicago-based developer and maker of object-based storage software and appliances, is an interesting move for a vendor whose roots are deep in enterprise computing. IBM says that the acquisition strengthens its positions in storage and hybrid cloud, and will also support the adoption and use of next-gen mobile, social and analytics applications.

Do those claims make sense or seem reasonable? That depends in large part on your understanding of object storage, how IBM plans to position Cleversafe and its potential uses for enterprises and other customers.

Balancing big data demands

At one level, object storage is a response to the continuing, massive growth of unstructured and semi-structured “big” data. But big data itself reflects a larger revolution in digitization where computing solutions are challenging and entirely supplanting once-dominant analog products and processes.

Consider the radical changes that have occurred in photography over the past 20 years. For example, in 1996, Eastman Kodak enjoyed a market cap of $26B and employed 140,000 people. Less than two decades later – in 2012 – the company had withered in size to 17,000 workers and declared bankruptcy. Xprize CEO Peter Diamandis waggishly calls this “the new Kodak Moment” and uses the company’s sorry transformation to highlight the dangers traditional businesses face when they fail to adapt to changing industries and markets.

In essence, Kodak was painfully caught between complementary, rapidly evolving trends in both digital photography and data storage. In the former case, multi-MP digital cameras have become commodity features in virtually every mobile and smart phone sold today. In the latter, the 16GB micro SD card that would have set you back $60 in 2010 can be found on Amazon today for $4 to $10.

Do the math and consider its effect on Kodak. Though company engineer Steven Sasson actually invented the digital camera in 1975, Kodak’s continuing focus on its film and low cost camera businesses eventually led it into irrelevance and failure.

Similar evolutionary shifts are impacting industries of every sort, and businesses are struggling to keep up and gain value from new innovations. In some cases, those benefits can be quite profound, say, for healthcare organizations that can easily store and quickly distribute digitized medical images to the care givers who need them. That’s a far cry from the warehouse-sized repositories required to store hundreds of thousands or millions of physical X-Rays, not to mention filing, delivering and refiling films by hand.

Object storage isn’t appropriate for replacing the traditional block and file solutions that are designed to support the key information and requirements of critical business processes and applications. But it’s a great option for storing unstructured information that’s updated infrequently or is entirely inactive. Add in its massive scalability and object storage can be an ideal platform for large digital image and video repositories that are often leveraged in new mobile, social and analytics apps, as well as for business data archives.

IBM and Cleversafe

That’s where Cleversafe’s Dispersed Storage Network and its other solutions and offerings come in. The company certainly isn’t the only player in object storage. In fact, the market is crowded with both large established vendors, like EMC, HDS and NetApp, as well as other specialists like Scality, Amplidata and DDN.

But IDC’s 2013-2014 research on object storage placed Cleversafe at or near the top of the market in terms of share, strategies and capabilities. Toss in the fact that the company has been doing business since 2004 and owns 350 patents (along with another 500 or so still under review) and IBM’s purchase seems both highly justifiable and wise.

So what will the company do with Cleversafe?

From a market strategy perspective, the deal should substantially enhance IBM offerings for image/video-intensive industries, including media and entertainment and healthcare, and also expand the company’s archive portfolio with object storage options. But IBM’s plans to leverage Cleversafe solutions through both its storage organization and to bolster its SoftLayer cloud platform should make it easy for customers of any size or focus to find an object storage solution to fit their needs.

Final analysis

Cleversafe’s position as an established market leader should have an immediate, positive impact on IBM, allowing it to compete more effectively with both established object storage solutions vendors and cloud-specific object storage services offered by Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

That said, any time a large established vendor purchases a plucky smaller player, questions arise over whether the acquired company can maintain or enhance the qualities that made it special in the first place. Fortunately for Cleversafe, IBM has a solid track record in this regard so I believe the deal and the resulting future endeavors will be a success.

But that’s also an important issue for existing and potential IBM customers. The company has a long history of studying and pursuing deals it believes will help it enter, execute and succeed in new markets and use case scenarios. That, in turn, should help both IBM and the customers it serves adapt to continuing technological innovations and avoid nightmarish “new Kodak moments.”

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