A Kinder, Gentler EMC?

Is the storage giant as firendly as it might seem?

Is the storage giant's recent open source software initiative as friendly as it might seem?

Flying back to Florida from Southern California recently, I was enjoying a rare first-class ticket that included, along with real food, unlimited drinks and a hot towel, a supposedly "better class of people with whom to interact." My seatmate struck me as a salesman or corporate account manager for a technology or pharmaceutical company—an impression reinforced by the cell phone attached to his ear.

As passengers boarded, he began speaking louder and louder, until before long he was literally shouting into the phone. I (and most of the rest of the plane) couldn't help but overhear his side of the conversation as he yelled angry epithets and demanded an explanation of how "it" could've happened. Seems he had left a customer account for only a few days to attend a meeting back in Hopkinton (the Massachusetts headquarters of storage giant EMC Corp.). In his absence, Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) had apparently managed to drop an Hitachi Lightning storage array into the customer's data center.

His conversation illustrated the competitive heat of today's storage market, as he complained into the phone, "It's like they're circling our accounts with helicopters, waiting for us to go to lunch." This particular client, he explained loudly, always took several months to agree to a new EMC product. Hitachi had managed to put an array on the floor in a couple of days. "[Expletive deleted], we can't even deploy a platform that quickly."

I was enjoying the drama, but as we backed from the gate, flight attendants finally pressed him into ending the conversation for the meantime. After my seatmate's blood pressure dropped (helped by a few drinks), we introduced ourselves (I'll call him Joe) and chatted about his job at EMC—and about how the storage industry in general, and EMC in particular, has been hit hard since early 2001. Times had gotten even tougher now, Joe said, with Hitachi using a "puppy dog" sale technique on EMC clients (that means placing an array at no charge with a prospective customer, then letting them try it for several months before deciding to buy). It was a slick approach, my seatmate said: "Who wants to unplug an array after they've done all the work to load it up with a couple of terabytes of data?"

As our conversation progressed and the drink specials flowed, Joe confided that there are currently two schools of thought within EMC. One group sees EMC as a hardware company, selling "big iron" with a wrap-around service contract, just like in the good old days of mainframe DASD. The other group sees the future of the company in software rather than hardware. This reminded me of former EMC CEO Mike Ruettgers' public remarks on several occasions in the last couple of years, to the effect that EMC sold the same hardware as everyone else in the industry—"a box of Seagate hard drives." According to that point of view, EMC's added value is clearly software.

My seatmate reiterated this software view, maintaining that whether it's microcode on an array controller, or add-on software available to EMC hardware users, EMC's software provides an 18- to 24-month lead over the rest of the industry. Leveraging this software, with or without the accompanying hardware array, Joe maintained, quoting another set of voices inside EMC, "is the real future of the company."

The plane landed, we parted company, and I thought little more about Joe's comments until EMC announced, in late October, its first software-only venture: Open Storage Management.

How Open is Open?
Open Storage Management is both an industry initiative and a software-only offering from EMC. Its premise is simple: Up until now, companies have been ill-served by the lack of open standards for storage management—or more to the point, by the failure of the industry to rally around the standards that do exist, and to build or modify their storage platforms to enable standards-based management.

EMC correctly observes that neither the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) nor the Common Information Model (CIM) management standards have been widely adopted by vendors. Rather, storage vendors have paid lip service to open management standards but have been reluctant to actually design their products for support management via a third-party console. My guess is that they fear that doing so will turn their storage products into commodities, selected by the buyer based on price alone. Given the lack of support for standards-based management, most storage vendors (including EMC) have created their own proprietary mechanisms to manage their own products. This has certainly been done at least in part to compel customers to purchase homogeneous storage solutions with a single vendor's product logo.

But if you're one of those customers who wants to purchase best-of-breed storage products from a variety of vendors, your only choice has been to buy and deploy one of several—usually "kludgy"—management software "frameworks" available in the market. In general, such third-party framework products manage to provide some heterogeneous platform monitoring and management. They do so by leveraging SNMP "traps," Application Programmer Interfaces (APIs), Command Line Interfaces (CLIs), and any other status monitoring and configuration "program hooks" exposed by hardware manufacturers. In order to develop the mechanisms to interface proprietary hardware-resident status monitoring and control programs with management software frameworks, software vendors have been at the mercy of hardware vendors.

By extension, users of framework software have been unwitting "hostages" of a continued good working relationship between the framework guys and the storage-hardware manufacturers. Any falling out between a framework and storage vendor could render a software vendor's product useless in managing a particular brand of hardware.

You can solve this, according to EMC, through its new open storage management software framework. The company has taken its considerable investment in storage APIs to create "WideSky"—a kind of middleware for connecting heterogeneous storage platforms and software products to an "externalized version" of EMC's storage management software product, ControlCenter/Open Edition. In other words, the company is recasting its proprietary storage management software as an "open" framework solution by inviting all storage companies to use its management software APIs.

A De Facto Standard in the Making?
The immediate response to EMC's offer was, as expected, negative. Three of the biggest storage vendors—IBM, Veritas and Network Appliance—unanimously panned the idea. It was unreasonable, critics said, to expect EMC's competitors (both hardware and software) to embrace such a solution. What possible advantage could come from enabling storage platforms for "universal management" under the aegis of EMC software?

The answer is traction. EMC enjoys an advantage that other vendors in the storage industry can only wish for. It's the undisputed king of the storage hill in Fortune 1000 companies, which collectively account for about 65 percent of all storage technology spending. Other storage companies that want to sell into these accounts may get significant advantage from the ability to integrate the management of their hardware and software with EMC gear already on the floor under the umbrella of EMC's new ControlCenter/Open Edition.

In effect, EMC is endeavoring to turn its management framework into a de facto standard. This isn't a new idea, of course, and it may well remind you of another company, Microsoft, that has managed to do that very thing in the server operating systems space. To play in the Windows world, vendors must be willing to interface with Windows APIs. The result of this dynamic has been the development of application software and server hardware that is OS-compatible out-of-the-box. Windows products compete on a "level playing field" of Microsoft "standards" while differentiating themselves in terms of features, function and price. One can argue that users benefit from that type of competition.

EMC is arguing that in the same way, the concept of universal storage management would benefit under the EMC umbrella. If every vendor supports the EMC ControlCenter product and middleware (APIs), then all products will be fundamentally manageable, while continuing to compete on the basis of feature, function and price. Who are the beneficiaries? EMC software sales, of course—but also you, as a consumer who needs a way to manage more storage with fewer staff.

Any Gotchas?
Given EMC's reputation as a voracious competitor, I e-mailed an EMC spokesperson to ask about any inherent "gotchas" in the open source initiative. EMC's answer was straightforward. "APIs don't give access to 'secret sauce' level details of competitive hardware. They do, however, enable EMC to manage competitive hardware as well as—if not better than—their own management applications. APIs enable our storage to be managed; they don't expose the details about how it works. EMC today is interested in sharing APIs on an apples-to-apples basis. If a hardware competitor wants to share CLIs for midrange hardware, we'll offer to exchange CLIs for CLARiiON. If they want EMC to share Symmetrix APIs, we'll require their high-end APIs in return."

The response sounds reasonable, although embedded within is standard EMC rhetoric that may raise the hackles of competitors: The suggestion that EMC could manage the vendor's hardware better than the vendor itself could. Such hubris has planted seed of mistrust into just about every EMC-sponsored industry initiative to date. That kind of talk doesn't foster cooperation, and the message often bleeds through to the sales force, whose behavior of late has been made an issue by some of the company's biggest users (see "EMC: A Checkered Past in Storage Openness").

Here's my take: The only obvious gotcha in the Open Storage Management initiative is EMC's attitude. Like the account manager on the flight from California, perhaps the company needs to learn when to stop shouting, turn off the phone and lighten up. If EMC spokespersons can do that, they may be surprised how many friends they can cultivate.

From the perspective of storage managers, particularly those with raised floors already populated by a combination of hardware from EMC and other storage vendors, EMC provides a ray of hope for centralized management. However, the efficacy of the approach will depend as much on the willingness of other vendors to participate in the EMC management solution as on the willingness of EMC to enable its management platform to be itself managed by third-party framework products.

Watch this space.