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Huawei a big storage hitter despite international troubles

Huawei is a leading storage player with an enterprise product offer across file, block and object storage, and the cloud, despite controversy and trading difficulties

Huawei is known for its networking and telecoms business, with products that range from handsets to routers to 5G network infrastructure.

But the firm is also known for the embargoes, bans and sanctions by Western states that seek to rein in Chinese influence.

In data storage, Huawei offers cost savings over competitors. Analysts suggest Huawei kit is significantly cheaper to buy and run than equipment from its US-based competitors, and offers a wide range of enterprise-focused (NVMe and SAS) flash and HDD-equipped array products.

It majors in scale and file, block and object access in on-premise hardware, and has a comprehensive cloud storage offer. It might be said to lag in terms of containers storage and consumption models of purchase.

Huawei is a significant supplier of compute, network and data storage equipment in China, but also other emerging markets in central Asia and the Middle East.

However, the company is not just a value-for-money supplier. Its OceanStor Dorado all-flash arrays and OceanStor Pacific scale-out systems are competitive with suppliers such as Dell EMC or HPE, and in some use cases outperform them.

Huawei also offers its own advanced technology, with highly redundant, all-flash storage systems and artificial intelligence (AI)-driven architecture. It has its own ARM-based processors for storage controllers, and its own proprietary SSD form factor to save space. And for some CIOs, especially in the emerging markets where Huawei is strong, the fact that it is not a US tech company has its own appeal. 

Challenging history

Huawei has a complex and controversial history.

The business is based in Shenzhen and was founded in 1987. It started out building telecom switches (PBXs) and expanded into cellular network equipment. It overtook Sweden’s Ericsson as the largest telecoms equipment supplier in 2012, and overtook Apple in smartphone sales in 2018.

However, the firm’s strong ties to the Chinese government and military have been the source of controversy and continue to do so. The firm has also faced accusations of breaching intellectual property laws, an overly close relationship to the Chinese government, espionage – including back doors in its telecoms kit that allegedly allow Chinese authorities to intercept messages – and bans on its equipment in the UK, US and Canada as well as restictions in India and bans in some European countries. Huawei denies the charges against it.

Huawei is, however, rapidly growing sales and market share. Data from IDC’s Enterprise Storage Systems Tracker for external storage – so arrays – showed that Huawei increased its market share by just under 9% from 2016 to 2021.

Of the other storage “majors”, only Pure Storage managed positive market share growth. The same rankings place Huawei fourth in the global market, behind Dell, HPE and NetApp but ahead of Hitachi Vantara and IBM.

In 2022, Huawei posted revenues of CNY642.3 billion, CNY35.6 billion in net profits, and spent 25% of its revenues on R&D, according to its annual report. The supplier does not break out data storage revenues, but revenues for its enterprise division – which includes data storage – were CNY133.1 billion in 2022, behind both the carrier and consumer business. Cloud computing revenues came to CNY45.3 billion. The company employs 207,000 people worldwide.

Huawei storage products

Huawei groups its hardware data storage under the OceanStor brand, with six main product lines.

OceanStor Dorado are Huawei’s all-flash systems. At the high end (Dorado 8000 and 18000), these scale to 32 controllers and offer block and file access modes with NVMe and other SSD form factors. Other Dorado arrays are the 5000/6000, 3000 and 2000, and scale down in numbers of controllers and drive capacity, although the latter appears to be block access only.

OceanStor Pacific is flash and HDD-equipped scale-out hardware, and comes in product lines aimed at performance (flash), balanced (ie, performance and secondary storage but all HDD with some SSD cache), video (streaming and archiving, all-HDD again), and archiving with HDD.

OceanStor is the hybrid line. The OceanStor 18510 and 18810scale to 32 controller and allow file, block and object (S3) access with NVMe and SAS (flash and HDD) capacity. OceanStor 6810, 5xxx series run to 16 controllers, while the 2xxx series run to eight controllers and just SAS capacity (ie, not NVMe).

Read more about storage suppliers

FusionCube is Huawei’s converged infrastructure offer, and comes in a range of rackspace sizes (8U to 42U), plus a data or hypervisor-focussed FusionCube 1000 (HDD and NVMe) hyper-converged appliance, plus FusionCube software hyper-converged infrastructure.

OceanProtect is the supplier’s dedicated backup, DR and archiving line, which includes backup appliances (OceanProtect Backup Storage) and a distributed appliance product (Huawei Data Protection Appliance).

OceanDisk Smart Disk Enclosure connects to cloud storage for diskless datacentres.

Huawei’s cloud offer spans numerous product types that include object, file and block storage, as well as backup and disaster recovery services.

Aside from its cloud offer, Huawei seems to lack data storage consumption models for on-premise hardware. Container storage appears to be delivered from its Dorado storage arrays via CSI drivers. 

Workloads and market sectors

Huawei’s background in telecoms means this remains a key vertical for the company – its first storage products were designed for telco operators. The supplier also has a strong public sector customer base in China.

Today, Huawei’s enterprise division positions itself less by industry vertical than by capabilities such as big data, resilient systems, and AI and machine learning. The supplier is, however, well placed to provide technology where those verticals converge, such as China’s fast-growing automotive industry.

The company is pushing workloads that require consistent high performance – through its all-flash systems – as well as resilience and where data volumes are set to scale. Huawei executives talk about a market with Yottabyte (a quadrillion GB) capacities, and the business appears to have every intention of competing in that space. However, it also stresses the need for lower operating costs, and reducing energy consumption through technological innovation.

In terms of geography, according to Huawei’s annual report, China remains its largest market. In 2022, its revenues were CNY404 billion in its domestic market, CNY149.2 billion in EMEA and CNY48 billion in Asia Pacific. Americas revenue came to CNY319 billion. These figures reflect, in part, the impact of sanctions and bans on Huawei in the United States, the UK, and other markets. In fact, the supplier closed its UK enterprise business, including storage in 2020. It does still operate in some other European countries. 

Necessity, the mother of invention

Although Huawei has pulled out of a number of markets recently – as well as closing its enterprise division in the UK, it’s reported to have pulled out or is pulling out of the other Five Eyes countries and India – the business continues to invest and innovate.

Huawei can no longer obtain X86 chips for its storage controllers due to US sanctions, so it develops its own controllers, known as Kunpeng, based on ARM cores. These are made by Huawei’s fabless semi-conductor operation, HiSilicon, and provide up to 64 cores.

The supplier has also developed its own SSD design, with a 1.7-inch form factor, rather than the industry-standard 2.5”. This allows 36 drive modules in a 2U enclosure.

It’s this level of innovation – coupled with that vast R&D budget – that makes Huawei a supplier for CIOs to watch, even if they cannot currently buy its hardware.

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