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EMC recently outlined such a world, where commodity storage equipment, plentiful bandwidth, and improved storage virtualisation tools all converge to foster the creation of "information plants" made up of massive, heterogeneous storage networks.
EMC wants to be the company that manages these information plants - expected in or around 2005 - and is making huge investments in interoperability research to meet the challenge, according to officials.
"It is essential that higher levels of functionality are delivered" to accomplish such a complex goal, explained Jim Rothnie, senior vice president and CTO of EMC.
Built on the shoulders of existing EMC storage management software such as ESN Manager, information plant technology is already being tested at more than 1,000 EMC customer locations worldwide, officials said.
Sources close to EMC said the company is also proactively tuning its storage platform to work with third-party storage products in an effort to bring equipment from non-allied storage vendors, such as Sun Microsystems, under the information plant management umbrella.
"This is the first real sign that says EMC is sticking their toe in the water [towards] becoming an independent software company," said Steve DuPlessie, a senior analyst at Enterprise Storage Group.
The motivation for EMC to transform itself into a software company lies with storage virtualisation, a relatively new technique that in its purest form allows network administrators to add storage using generic, commodity disc drives in place of brand-name gear.
Offering pure virtualisation effectively kills the market for a storage vendor's own branded storage gear. Vendors must either offer limited virtualisation on their own branded products or seek revenue from their own virtual storage management products, DuPlessie said.
"That's the thing that most scares EMC about virtualisation. They'll either commoditise themselves, or someone else will do it to them," DuPlessie said.
EMC is betting that its accelerated software management strategy will eventually put information plant technology in the position of managing storage devices from competitors such as IBM, Hitachi, and Hewlett-Packard, companies Rothnie believes are still focused primarily on hardware. Thus, competitors may be less capable of moving up the chain of higher functionality, he added.
A shift in focus from hardware to storage management software will also put EMC in contention with storage software company Veritas Software. EMC claims to have a 25% share of the current storage software market already.
"Every successful, large company has to decide to milk its product cash cow until it's out or slowly cannibalise its expertise and morph into something else. The idea of owning all the storage in the world is never going to happen and EMC realises this," explained Dan Tanner, a senior analyst at Aberdeen Group.
But Tanner does not expect EMC to abandon its storage hardware business in the near future. In fact, a potential scenario could be for EMC to "set up virtualisation so you can mirror some other company's storage to [EMC's] Summetrix, but you can't mirror it back. Then it becomes a migration strategy," Tanner said.
DuPlessie said EMC's sheer size gives it the advantage. "There aren't many $2bn [£1.4bn] software companies out there. If EMC becomes a software company that covers all, it's not like Sun has a choice. Sun will adhere to [EMC's] framework," DuPlessie said.