Observations from an EMC analyst day

EMC has made VMware an integral part of its story in a dramatic departure from years past.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
3 min read

On the one hand, vendor analyst events are a good opportunity to spend focused time diving deep into individual products, roadmaps, and corporate initiatives. On the other, they're a useful forum for getting the feel of a company's overall zeitgeist in a way that narrower discussions don't. EMC's event, held last week in Franklin, Mass., was no exception.


Perhaps the single thing that struck me most about the event as a whole was the full integration of VMware into the discussion as a whole. I've been following both companies since before EMC acquired VMware in 2003. In the years since, although there were the obligatory nods to joint development work and "better together," VMware aggressively maintained a distance that was hardly limited to the 3,000 miles between VMware's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters and EMC in Massachusetts. VMware's presence at EMC analyst events was largely relegated to a few off-hand mentions and perhaps a desultory breakout session given by a junior marketing person.

This year couldn't have been more different. VMware was very much woven into just about every discussion and one of VMware's senior technologists shared a panel with representatives from EMC and Cisco Systems. One thing that has changed, of course, is the ouster of VMware founder and CEO Diane Greene in 2008. It was Greene who most vocally kept EMC at arm's length. It's also the case that virtualization is increasingly at the center of everything that EMC does, so how could VMware not be an integral part?

This pervasive virtualization theme carried through to EMC VP Jon Peirce's discussion about EMC's internal IT infrastructure as well. EMC IT is using VMware to virtualize as much as possible. This includes doing database testing on a Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) in advance of a planned migration off Sun E25000 UltraSPARC-based servers.

An initial Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) deployment also uses UCS in the form of a vBlock--a preconfigured package that combines products from Cisco, EMC, and VMware. EMC has about 200 users on VDI today and expects to roll out to several thousand next year starting in their Franklin facility. VDI and associated forms of desktop virtualization are a favorite technology of CEO Joe Tucci, who would like to move toward a platform-agnostic client strategy.

The ultimate goal is what sometimes goes by BYOPC (Bring Your Own PC), in which employees provide their own notebook computers, perhaps purchased with the help of a stipend. Even today, many of the EMC execs at the event were sporting Macs, even though IT doesn't officially support them.

Another hot topic at the event was multi-tier storage, in this case automatic storage tiering that intelligently moves data between Flash-based storage and conventional disk drives. EMC's technology here is called FAST and will roll out on Symmetrix V-Max arrays.

Flash drives can be much faster than SATA disks--or even high-performance Fibre Channel drives--but they're also much more expensive on a per-GB basis. The idea behind FAST is to automate the placement of data based on the way its accessed. For example, a database index that is frequently read and written to will migrate to high performance flash while older data that hasn't been touched for a while will move to slower, cheaper disks.

Disks being used to store rarely accessed archival data can even be deduped, compressed, and even spun down to reduce overall data center power consumption. Tape isn't part of this vision; Tucci opined that "Backup to and recovery from tape is dead."

The idea of storage tiering isn't new. Hierarchical storage management (HSM) has been around for well over a decade. However, in practice, it's mostly ended up being about moving old files to tape for archive purposes. (EMC itself has a product in this vein: Legato DiskXtended.) FAST is something more transparent and more dynamic.

There are analogs between FAST and the storage pooling that is part of Sun Microsystems' ZFS filesystem. EMC argues that the function belongs on the storage device rather than the server because the array is where data access from multiple systems and applications come together.

It's unsurprising that EMC wants storage to be at the center of things. This is a company, after all, whose tagline is "where information lives." It is, however, worth remembering that this is a different lens through which to view the world than system vendors tend to choose--and, for that matter, than VMware chose historically.