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By | Chris Mellor 15th May 2009 15:07

The V-Max dust is settling

How will EMC's competition respond?

Comment EMC raised a marketing whirlwind with its highly scalable Symmetrix V-Max last month, and much dust was raised as competitors and EMC made claims and counter-claims. What will EMC competitors actually do, though, as they assimilate the impact of V-Max?

It's possible to discern likely steps forward in enterprise array design by stepping back a moment, roughly a decade or so, over-simplifying and saying that the enterprise storage array space was then dominated by two main storage architectures. There were modular arrays, like EMC's Clariion, NetApp's FAS products and HP's EVA, with other products from IBM and HDS, and there were monolithic arrays with more powerful controllers and greater performance and scalability.

Then second-generation SAN array architectures came along, mostly based on commodity processor technology. Compellent offered block-level tracking and automated the placement of blocks based on activity levels. This was a new kind of modular array. Pillar built its Axiom with a 2-level controller design and a third storage node building block. This enabled Pillar to scale performance and capacity separately and neatly and develop its application-aware, differentiated quality of storage service.

3PAR developed its enterprise utility storage array using multiple controllers connected in a type of cluster, using a proprietary ASIC-driven interconnect that linked them and the storage shelves. There can be eight such controllers in its InServe product.

The idea of separating controllers from the storage is one of the main aspects of these designs, and one that Hitachi took on board when it introduced its USP high-end product in 2004. The virtualising USP-V controller was introduced in 2006, with IBM introducing its in-fabric SAN Volume Controller in that decade too. Both of these meant that you could virtualise a huge amount of storage behind the controller, and develop and scale the controller technology separately from the storage node or enclosures, which could have their own performance and capacity scaled as well.

We can view Symm V-Max as EMC realising that modularisation, combined with scalable controller technology, can deliver a better and more cost-effective way of developing array controller functionality and performance, and scaling controller and storage node performance and capacity independently. V-Max can have up to 8 clustered controller nodes currently, the 3PAR number, but is set to go higher. By clustering controllers you can scale array controller performance higher and faster than by riding, say, Intel's processor development curve.

The main Symm V-Max competitors are 3PAR with its InServe, HDS with its USP-V (OEM'd by HP and Sun), IBM with its DS8000, and NetApp with its FAS 6000 product line. How are these likely to develop?

It seems probable that all four will develop clustered array controllers using Intel Nehalem 5500 building blocks. These quad-core CPUs are powerful, available in multi-socket configurations, and with 6- and 8-core versions coming that there is simply no need to use anything else. Opteron's maybe, or Power6 in IBM's case, but for everyone else, Intel rules.

Such controller power is needed to provide the virtualised, multiple storage tiers, from SSD to SATA capacity drives. These will feature thin provisioning, some form of dynamic data movement across tiers, data protection based on snapshots, unified block and file access, increased access ports (consequent on server virtualisation and cloud-style computing), increased back-end ports (ditto), and possible array partitioning into different storage personalities such as online, nearline, and archive.

There will need to be a cluster interconnect, either proprietary, InfiniBand or EMC's RapidIO, but not Ethernet as RDMA over Ethernet isn't ready yet.

The competition's responses

This leads us to the point where we guess that HDS will introduce a clustered follow-on product to the USP-V. It will support up to 8 controllers and at least 3,000 disks, surpassing the current V-Max, with a road map to 10,000 disks plus. HDS has refreshed USP steadily since its 2004 introduction, but the basic architecture is new five years old. It is possible that HP and Oracle's Sun hardware division will continue to OEM high-end storage from HDS and they will surely have been asked by HDS for their opinions about the future direction of HDS' USP-V technology.

At 3PAR the two founders are working together in a chief technology officer pairing. We shouldn't imply anything special from this according to 3PAR, but commentators think that this will result in a faster and higher-capacity Super InServe, with more than 8 controllers, much higher capacity and more of the leading edge storage functional innovation which 3PAR is so good at.

NetApp has flagged it has a new high-end hardware product coming. We can speculate about its characteristics in this way: there have been a few SoftChoice job ads talking about a storage engineer needed by NetApp with reference to "(FAS2000, FAS3000, FAS6000, FAS7000)" products. These job postings are no longer current. There is no FAS7000 in NetApp's product range, so this might refer to the post-FAS6000 product.

With NetApp CEO Dan Warmenhoven having talked 2-3 of years ago about a new product called Excelsior, a follow-on from the FAS 980, with 8-nodes and 1,000 drive support, it seems likely that Excelsior was split. The FAS6000 supports around 1,100 drives, so it got the disk drives. However, we're still waiting for an 8-node NetApp product.

Okay, the logic goes: add 8-node hardware to ONTAP 8, the cluster-capable combination of ONTAP 7G and GX. Then spec out something more scalable in capacity and performance terms to meet Isilon's products in the clustered filer space, and EMC's Symm V-MAX in the clustered controller block storage space. That indicates a product which supports, say, 2,000+ drives and has 8-way clustering, with separation between the clustered controllers and storage nodes.

It might also introduce SAS drive and SSD support.

If NetApp were to offer clustering to its base of installed FAS boxes, it would mean controller upgrades and an interconnect addition. Alternatively the FAS 7000 could have clustering which would not be made available to NetApp's installed product base. That would be an easier engineering task. So, NetApp may introduce an FAS 7000, which will take full advantage of ONTAP 8 with 8-way clustering and possible access node/storage node separation. It is less likely to add clustering capability to the installed FAS 6000 base via controller upgrades.

This leaves IBM. It may introduce a DS 9000 with clustered controllers separated from its multi-tiered storage nodes. There is an interesting diversion here, which is to wonder what you get when you add an SVC front-end to a DS 8000 back-end? That would be a head transplant, as the SVC would replace most of the DS 8000's current controller functionality.

This set of speculations has been prepared independently of the vendors mentioned. None have confirmed that they are looking ahead this way. Nevertheless, storage hardware and software goes through major refreshes and how else can HDS (plus HP and Sun), IBM and NetApp respond to EMC's Symm V-Max and the success of 3PAR? Indeed, how else can 3PAR maintain its edge and continue to grow its business over the next five and ten years?

Hopefully we'll see the new high-end NetApp machine later this year, and that should increase the competitive pressure on 3PAR, HDS, and IBM with, possibly, interesting disclosures coming in 2010. ®

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