EMC’s VNXe: ITaaS to the SMB market

Yes, there is a box, but it's the software inside that could end up in many different form-factors that is important

EMC’s “mega-launch” (Wikibon’s write-up of the full announcement is here) includes a new product (VNXe) and strategy targeting the SMB market. According to IDC research, the entry-level market for storage is both larger and has a higher growth rate than the mid-range or high-end market. EMC understands that if it wants to live up to its tagline “Where Information Lives”, it must be competitive in the SMB market. EMC has strong positions in the enterprise and midrange, but it is much easier to move up-market than push down-market. Most products that target SMB have tended to be either consumer products that are not designed for business environments or stripped down versions of midrange products. EMC has attempted to crack the SMB market before with “entry level” CLARiiON (AX-Series) and a channel effort (EMC Insignia), so will this new product and strategy have different results? EMC believes that the trends of simplification and automation along with the commoditization of hardware provides the opportunity for the creation of a product – whose value is primarily software that can provide a robust solution to SMBs that can be used by an IT generalist rather than storage specialist.

Product

A handpicked internal EMC team developed the VNXe solution from the ground-up while leveraging the experience and code of previous products. The underlying enabling technology for the product is the Common Software Execution (CSX) Environment, which EMC Distinguished Engineer Steve Todd has explained on his blog. This software which makes up the core of the VNXe, is hardware and architecture agnostic. VNXe is an Ethernet-based unified storage (NAS/iSCSI) device that starts at a cost of less than ten thousand dollars. Just as VMware software can go on a large variety of server platforms, CSX software could be used as the foundation for various EMC and OEM solutions; allowing for customization for specific requirements of markets or geographies. It will be interesting to see where EMC takes CSX software next – it could even be delivered as a software-only solution in a virtual machine.

Processes

Beyond the product, there are significant challenges in the processes required to be successful in the SMB market, including:

  1. Skill set – users do not understand storage terminology
  2. Marketing/Brand – SMB users are more likely to recognize consumer brands and will utilize search engines and forums as primary research tools
  3. Channel – different than the VAR/integrator for mid-range

Storage management has been seeing incremental simplification and automation, which has helped storage administrators, but most SMB companies don’t have storage skills or the time to learn them. To create a brand new management tool, EMC took what it had learned from previous efforts in the market and collaborated with the Iomega team that sells into the consumer market. To be successful, this new GUI has to be great (see screenshot’s here), and EMC says that field feedback is that this tool finally meets the needs of the IT generalist. The resulting Unisphere for VNXe is a simple and clean interface that looks more like a business/web application (built with Adobe Flex) than a traditional IT management tool (built on Java). There are wizards for configuring based on email or virtualization (VMware and Hyper-V) requirements – NO storage language such as LUNs, targets or zoning. In addition to management, the product and GUI allows for customer deployment and self-service or direct linkage to the VARs who can install, repair and expand the system.

Gaining visibility in a crowded and fragmented SMB market will be one of the largest challenges for EMC. While EMC has been increasing its marketing presence over the last few years (sports fans in the Boston area will know the “EMC levels” of Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium), most SMB business people around the world will not have a brand preference for EMC on name alone. EMC is adding a new “Affiliates” tier to its Velocity partner program to enable the SMB market through thousands of partners who can learn the product though a short computer based training. It will be these partners and customer’s word of mouth that will determine whether the VNXe can penetrate the market.

Cloud Dynamics

In the last four years while EMC was developing the VNXe, cloud computing has emerged as a trend that is challenging everything in traditional IT. Many of the business applications that SMB businesses use can be consumed through cloud models. The move to cloud offerings is not happening overnight and many businesses will choose the security and control of keeping data in-house. In the broad SMB market, there is room for many offerings, just as in the enterprise there is the debate between private cloud and public cloud, VNXe provides an internal ITaaS solution for customers that will compete with the growing external cloud offerings.

Action Item: SMB users have numerous options to help face the challenges of managing explosive data growth. Similar to larger businesses, they should begin evolving toward ITaaS. Solutions like EMC’s VNXe allow SMBs to have an internal option for simplifying storage operations to compete with cloudsourcing options.

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