Virtual Computing Environment, other alliances could mean data storage industry conflict

Virtual Computing Environment coalition formed by EMC, Cisco and VMware aims to sell storage as part of a complete IT stack. Will moves like this leave some vendors in the cold?

It seems the marketing war between the data storage industry's big hitters has entered a new phase. The conflict is about much more than storage, but data storage suppliers are intimately involved and non-aligned vendors, like NetApp and Symantec, face exclusion from a developing chunk of the market.

Five coalitions of server, storage and network vendors will soon be slugging it out to deliver integrated IT stacks to customers. So, who are they?

Key among them is the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) coalition formed by VMware, Cisco Systems and EMC to increase sales of the three companies' products in pre-configured bundles called Vblocks. These are sold by VCE coalition members' channels and there are three of them, defined pretty much by their server (Cisco) and storage horsepower (EMC). The Vblock 0 supports between 300 and 800 virtual machines on Celerra storage, Vblock 1 supports more on Clariion arrays, while Vblock 2 has a Symmetrix V-Max array and caters to 3,000 to 6,000 virtual machines.

These integrated stacks are built on open industry standards, they're closed in the sense that they're based around proprietary storage brands. Want a NetApp FAS6000 with your Vblock 1? Tough.

They're not available as single SKUs (stock-keeping units or orderable entities) and are not available as complete Vblocks from any of the three coalition partners -- only from their channel. EMC is throwing in RSA security and Ionix management. Cisco Systems makes its Nexus and MDS switches available along with its UCS X86 blades for server horsepower. VMware, majority-owned by EMC and with a minority investment from Cisco Systems, provides server virtualisation software.

The Acadia twist

So far, it's not that surprising. But here's the news worth noting: Cisco Systems, EMC, VMware and Intel have put cash into a joint venture called Acadia. This company will build, operate and then transfer ownership of Vblock-based infrastructures to the enterprise or public sector body that bought it or to a service provider. None of the three VCE coalition companies is capable of building such infrastructures themselves and nor, it seems, do they want to. So they have set up Acadia with undisclosed funding. Cisco and EMC put in a third each, and VMware and Intel put in a sixth each. Acadia will be staffed with 130 people and start operating next year.

Acadia is the visible face of Cisco, EMC and VMware integration, and will only build and operate Vblock kit, not sell it. Presumably the selling partners of the VCE coalition will use Acadia to install, implement and operate Vblock products sold to customers. Will they have to do this or is it an option? We don't know yet.

The formation of these alliances has given rise to some apparent contradictions. Intel and VMware, for example, who have strong OEM relationships with Dell, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and IBM, have invested in Acadia to accelerate sales of products from server and networking vendor Cisco Systems and storage vendor EMC -- the strongest competitors with Dell, HP and IBM that you could imagine.

Non-aligned vendors could face big decisions

The Virtual Computing Environment and its Vblock initiative has been followed by an HP Infrastructure architecture announcement with virtual resource pools of servers, storage and networks -- think BladeSystem Matrix, EVA storage and ProCurve switches, that sort of thing. These will also likely involve pre-configured configurations eventually, but they'll come from one company and there's a single order and throat chokepoint.

But while these integrated stacks are built on open industry standards, they're closed in the sense that they're based around proprietary storage brands. Want a NetApp FAS6000 with your Vblock 1? Tough. You could do it, but you have to do all the work yourself and lose the configuration ease and support of the Vblock.

If customers buy Vblocks (or the HP equivalent), this means they don't buy 3PAR, Compellent, Dell, Hitachi Data Systems, IBM, NetApp, Pillar Data Systems or Xiotech storage. They can buy deduplicating virtual tape libraries (VTLs) or data archive packages from independent, non-HP and VCE-aligned vendors, but not storage arrays -- at least for now. We can expect Vblocks to get more components, a backup-to-disk deduping Data Domain VTL for example, thus extending Vblock boundaries outward.

We know Oracle/Sun is also planning an integrated stack and IBM will almost certainly follow suit. Dell also has the capability with its servers and storage and Perot Systems services organisation. Dell might bulk up its networking products, as might IBM. Then we'll have five integrated IT stack suppliers, each containing in-house storage products, which leave non-aligned storage software and hardware suppliers out in the cold.

They'll say, and are already saying, that most customers want to buy best-of-breed products for each layer in the IT stack and that's the beauty of open systems and standards. It's true enough, but large companies looking for economies of scale in private cloud provision will be targeted by our five integrated stack suppliers, and if that effort is successful then the non-aligned vendors will be out of the cloud and in the cold.

If this IT buying model extends over more and more of the IT buying market landscape in the next few years, then storage vendors outside the integrated IT stacks face big decisions about their strategy.

Those who are already located in market niches will look for a relationship with an integrated stack vendor. Others will fight a furious marketing battle in favour of standards, best-of-breed software and not getting locked in. This could be to no avail. Few people buy hi-fi components separately now; they prefer all-in-one systems. When a herd of elephants comes your way, you better either hitch a ride or step aside to avoid being trampled.

BIO: Chris Mellor is storage editor of The Register

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