Analysis Most big companies eventually get taken apart by an unforeseen competitor applying a technology in a novel way.
EMC thinks it's seen the threat facing its business early enough that it can avoid the kind of slow, sad, decline that typified once-great titans like DEC and Sun Microsystems.
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At EMC World in Las Vegas this week EMC was betting heavily that its intuition is correct, and released a suite of new products, services, and features and acquired a company that, combined, are meant to give it a good life in an IT world where hardware is an afterthought.
The threat facing EMC is that what cloud is doing to traditional server and IT services companies, storage virtualization is likely to do for storage.
For this reason EMC started insisting last year that though it is chiefly known for putting large black expensive boxes inside enterprise data centers, it is in reality a software company.
It backed this eyebrow-raising claim up with a product named ViPR, which has been designed within EMC to protect the company from the coming disruption of commodity hardware flooding into data centers it typically sells to.
ViPR is a piece of storage virtualization software that splits upper-level storage management functions from array-level features, letting the system work as a controller for diverse heterogeneous infrastructures. Just as Cumulus Networks has designed software for marshaling the capabilities of varied networking switches, ViPR is meant to be able to command a set of storage boxes without caring about their vendors.
But when ViPR launched it was more vapor than ViPR, with drummed-up features like geo-replication and support for commodity storage not making an appearance.
Now, at EMC World in Las Vegas this week, that has changed. ViPR has gained some technical teeth, as described here by El Reg's storage czar Chris Mellor and acknowledged by company executives.
"There's a lot more ViPR than vapor," said EMC product chief Jeremy Burton in a chat with El Reg. "The 1.0 is tainted with the one dot oh-ism. Now [Vipr has] geo-distributed in there, that's the teeth that says 'this is a cloud scale system'."
That system is not just tech but also a new attitude within the company that accepts people may not buy entirely EMC stuff in the future, but if it wants to make any money at all it needs to reassure them that they won't be locked in. Hence ViPR.
"If you get locked in now and you've got one thousand times more data in ten years time then what's cheap today might not be cheap tomorrow and here's where we get pressure," Burton explained.
This new reality has been built into ViPR, and other products, at a fundamental level.
"Let us assume underlying infrastructure is going to be EMC and non-EMC and some of it is going to really be commodity hardware," Amitabh Srivastava, president of EMC's Advanced Storage Division, told us. "If the goal is to reduce operational expenditure, creating islands is not a good thing," he said. "Any time you have an island you have some specialized guys doing it."
EMC is not doing this out of altruism; rather it's a bid for survival in a storage world that has been turned upside down by the advent of affordable NAND flash, an explosion in software tools, and the arrival of systems like Hadoop which care less for the individual characteristics of each storage array.
"From a customer's perspective all the storage vendors have to play nice and really enable that everybody's arrays play nicely in that common infrastructure," Srivastava said. "It has to happen because customers are going to force us to do that."
The thing about enterprise tech is that these changes are visible from a long, long way off: Amazon launched its Amazon Web Services cloud in 2006 and the analyst community and media cottoned on to what this could do to traditional enterprise businesses by around 2009. It still took Microsoft and Google and HP several years to launch their own infrastructure-as-a-service clouds.
EMC, unlike rivals, thinks it's looking at the right threat and is behaving accordingly.
"Everyone is agreeing software should be separate from hardware, you can give credit to public clouds for that," Srivastava said. "Time has come to really separate the two things."
After the most recent blip in its financial quarter there are signs that hardware may already be coming under pressure, so EMC better have bet correctly. ®