EMC: A Checkered Past in Storage Openness

Competition Forced Innovation

At the time of its founding in 1979, EMC was an upstart. It entered a potentially lucrative storage market when disk space was selling for $36,000 per megabyte. It then battled uphill for a leadership position against an unshakeable incumbent, IBM. Old-timers tell stories of how Big Blue did its level best to kill the EMC infant in its cradle, but the company thrived. Competition forced innovation, and EMC platforms eventually became the Direct Access Storage Device (DASD) of choice for many mainframe shops.

The company went public in 1987 and survived Black Monday's stock plunge with flying colors. During the reign of Mike Ruettgers, who became president in 1990 and CEO in 1992, EMC became a household word in IT. Under Ruettgers, the company gained a reputation for product quality and nimble wrap-around service—a model born in the mainframe data center and extended successfully into open systems. In a comparatively short period of time, the company became dominant in high-end storage.

EMC's innovations in storage software have always been integral to its hardware solutions. In the late 1990s, some EMC insiders speculated that commodity hardware pricing would eventually force the vendor out of the hardware business altogether. Software accounted for EMC's market advantage, according to many voices inside the company, delivering an 18- to 24-month advantage over the competition. While these sentiments were echoed by Ruettgers' own statements in 1999 and 2000, the company seemed split internally between the software and hardware camps. It was difficult for most of the entrenched old-timers to envision an EMC that didn't sell Big Iron.

EMC's participation in Storage Area Networks (SANs) has been dotted with doublespeak about open and proprietary solutions. When the notion of SANs caught on in the industry in the late 1990s, EMC responded with its own solution, the Enterprise Storage Network (ESN). It's a subject of considerable debate and revisionism today, but EMC is said to have endeavored to impose a "warranty lock" to control what equipment customers could and couldn't include in an ESN.

EMC also formed an "open standards" group of its own, The Fibre Alliance, with a goal more than anything else of fostering an EMC-centric Fibre Channel SAN solution. This, plus the statement last year by IETF IP Storage Working Group Chairman (and EMC Senior Engineer) David Black, suggesting that EMC already "owned" the emerging IP SAN protocol, iSCSI—even before its adoption by IETF as a SAN standard—have given much credence to competitor claims that EMC's dedication to "openness" is less than sincere.

With the exception of some switch and storage software vendors, none of EMC's past initiatives has garnered much participation from the balkanized storage industry. This reluctance apparently continues with EMC's latest storage management software initiatives.

EMC may be talking the talk of open storage, but plenty of vendors—and customers—are waiting to see whether it will also walk the walk. Until the evidence is compelling, rumors of a kinder, gentler EMC remain just that.

About the Author

Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.