For the past 15-20 years, storage function (e.g. snapshots, data protection, recovery, etc.) has steadily migrated away from the server or host processor, outside the channel, and toward the storage array. Ironically, EMC started this trend on a rapid trajectory with its original Symmetrix announcement.
A key milestone in the reversal of this phenomenon came in 2008 when EMC landed a haymaker and shocked the high-end array market with the introduction of enterprise flash drives as a plug-in to the array. In another ironic twist, Fusion-io was coming out of stealth at this exact timeframe with a vision to disrupt the current order and move a persistent storage resource much closer to the CPU.
A new storage hierarchy is emerging inclusive of memory class extensions on the CPU side of the channel, flash cache, all-cache arrays, network flash controllers and flash in the array. This new hierarchy will ultimately have to provide a connection to the 'bit bucket' - the cheap and deep storage array full of low-cost SATA devices - and speak the language of virtualization and clustering.
EMC's VFCache announcement is a clear attempt to extend the value proposition of its arrays closer to the processor. By putting forth a vision that ties array function to PCIe flash through automated tiering software, EMC hopes to stake an early claim on the new emerging IO hierarchy. There are two broad strategies vendors will take to go after this "land grab," including:
- Storage-centric: EMC and other storage companies will link their installed bases to the emerging flash hierarchy through automated tiering software. In this approach, the locus of control will be the processing power in the array.
- Processor-centric: Server vendors including HP, IBM, Dell and perhaps Intel will extend the server and adapt it to more data-oriented workloads; making the CPU the central point of control.
Fusion-io for its part will continue to build out its stack and attempt to get ISVs to write to its API. EMC, other storage suppliers, and the server vendors will angle to create both de facto and de jure standards around the new emerging IO hierarchy.
A potentially significant opportunity is emerging for the supplier that can create this standard, or perhaps even become the independent software supplier to this new storage hierarchy. In the same way Veritas was able to build a base among ISVs, the channel, and users, this new storage hierarchy will need to be performant, protected, efficient and shared. It will require a logical place in the stack, a non-disruptive technology approach and a rich set of storage management functions. While this opportunity may be shared amongst many large suppliers, it is possible that one of the whales, an established startup, or a new software company could deliver this new class of storage services - only time will tell.
Action Item: EMC's VFCache signals that a storage-centric model is in play to manage the emerging flash hierarchy. While EMC will put forth a very strong story over time and bring many resources to bear to promote its approach, other models will test the market's desire for a high performance, persistent, highly available management resource for the new "flash stack." Suppliers should take note that software, not hardware will be the key differentiator and deliver the leverage for competitive advantage over the long run. No clear winner currently has emerged, and those vendors with the highest function, best ISV support, and ability to plug into important channels of distribution will likely emerge with the biggest prizes.