HP, IBRIX, LSI, ONStor and scale-out NAS

The storage acquisition cauldron bubbles. Both HP and LSI/Engenio buy relatively small scale-out NAS file system players. Is there a connection? Is this an emerging trend?

During the last two weeks we saw two acquisitions of relatively small purveyors of scalable file systems by big storage players. First, HP finally pulled in its partner IBRIX. Only days later, LSI made a surprise acquisition of ONStor. If both IBRIX and ONStor offer platforms upon which one can build scalable network attached storage (NAS), do these back-to-back deals indicate some sort of emerging trend? Yes and no. Yes it is in that, if you're a major NAS vendor and want to compete with NetApp who is readying GX8, scalability is now a must-have. But IBRIX extends capabilities HP already has whereas for LSI, ONStor represents their first ever venture into the NAS world.

Amazing is the amount of blogosphere and Twitter chatter that was generated by HP's announcement that it intended to acquire IBRIX for an undisclosed sum. No offense IBRIX people (all 53 of you), but you're not exactly a household name. It looks like HP is about to make you one however. And yes, you deserve all the attention you are getting, finally. You had a "next-gen" parallel file system before many knew they would even need one. You knew that Big Data users needed a file system that was system-agnostic and that would scale to the petabyte range. At the time however, they were in a niche-y place called high-performance computing (HPC). Now, Big Data users are cropping up everywhere. You count AOL, Caterpillar, Dreamworks, JP Morgan Chase, and Pixar among your 175 customers. Who knows where this cloud thing will take you.


Big is a relative term. In the storage world, what is big today will be table stakes tomorrow. The Petabyte-scale file system is becoming a must have for storage vendors. NetApp bought Spinnaker a while back. Sun developed ZFS. IBM has GPFS, and HP bought PolyServe last year two years ago but has chosen to position it in the Windows SQL Server space where it gets the most traction. IBRIX, with its many performance and data management capabilities, represents a much larger market opportunity to HP. And LSI has chosen to enter the NAS market as scalable from the get go.

IBRIX is headquartered in what was once a Honeywell Bull facility in Billerica, Mass. When they appeared in 2000 with a unique parallel file system called Fusion, the question was how to bring this to market? Who buys a parallel, scalable file system when file systems normally come bundled with or embedded in something else? IBRIX answered that question by forming remarketing relationships with big names: Dell, EMC, HP, and IBM who bundled/embedded IBRIX with their servers and storage. Dell and EMC packaged Fusion with PowerEdge servers and Clarrion storage, presenting the package to high-performance computing (HPC) customers. HP embedded Fusion in HP Blade and ProLiant server racks.

So what exactly does HP have planned for IBRIX? According to HP's Paul Perez, "HP will put the U in unified storage." OK, but that's a bit cryptic. Short term, HP will keep on keepin'-on with blade server/blade storage and scalable ProLiant/IBRIX NAS implementations. Longer term we may well see HP use IBRIX to approach cloud computing and archival storage opportunities.

Unified storage with a capitol "U" is a bit more of a challenge to understand. Typically the term has been applied to disk arrays that support fiber channel and Ethernet connectivity. HP likely means that kind of unification plus something more. IBRIX is typically used by its partners to create scale-out NAS subsystems using Fusion as the software engine that powers a NAS platform consisting of industry standard servers as the NAS front end, and SAN or direct-attached (DAS) RAID storage on the backend. As such, the combination presents scalable file storage to applications but uses block-based SAN or DAS storage. NAS is typically characterized as file storage, while SAN is block storage. It's a distinction that traditionally has had many application implications and ramifications. What HP's big U for Unified message may also be signaling is the introduction of a file/block converged storage product bundled with new hardware form factors sometime in the near future. For HP that likely means some combination of HP StorageWorks SANs, ProLiant rack-mount and blade servers, and ProCurve Ethernet switches powered by Fusion.

It's interesting that HP has chosen to announce a marriage now. After all, they've been dating for at least four years. But NetApp, after fussing like forever with the scalable file system it acquired from Spinnaker, is finally ready to go mainstream with it as ONTAP GX8. IBM is making more noise about GPFS. Then there's ZFS and its new owner--Oracle.


Which brings us to LSI and ONStor. LSI's Engenio Storage Group wasn't in NAS until now. It is in RAID arrays and storage virtualization. Now it's in scale-out NAS and NAS/SAN gateways too. Why? LSI/Engenio sells exclusively through original equipment manufacturers. IBM is a major reseller as is (was?) Sun. Dell is also in the mix. IBM's DS3000, 4000, and 5000 series arrays are all originally produced by LSI/Engenio.

But there is much repositioning going on among the big IT vendors these days. The future of Sun's hardware business is still a matter of debate in spite of Larry Ellison's assurance that Oracle will sell hardware too, and Dell is on record as in the hunt for companies worth buying. Is another storage acquisition possible for them? I think so. As a result, the number of large OEMs that LSI/Engenio can sell through is not growing and the future is unclear with regard to OEM sales of traditional RAID arrays via the big names in IT.

So NAS to LSI/Engenio represents new growth and possibly substantial growth if they can compete effectively. HP's acquisition of IBRIX potentially leaves something of a hole in the scale out NAS product lines of Dell, IBM, and EMC that LSI/Engenio. Dell and SGI may also need NAS/SAN gateways. IBM might like to have a second source for the NAS boxes they get from NetApp because ONStor is both scale out and scale up. And let's not count out Sun/Oracle either. Whereas IBRIX had established prominence in HPC computing, ONStor went after more mainstream applications and could be a better fit in that space for the big OEM partners.

So put LSI/Engenio on the list of buyers looking for things to buy as opposed to the other way around. They didn't just suddenly decide to write a $25 million check to the owners of ONStor after learning of HP/IBRIX. Their executives have assured me that they've been looking to add NAS to the portfolio for months. Market conditions and a desire to make a "we're here to stay" statement drove the timing of the ONStor deal.

Suddenly a somewhat dormant space in the storage world is erupting with activity. Why? The Big Data apps are here and they generate big system opportunities as well as big Unified storage opportunities.


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