IBM Stays the Storage Course

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The overall storage market has seen a number of challenges recently in achieving desired goals, such as in the number of petabytes vendors actually sell. That has led a few prognosticators to express a “sky-is-falling” analysis (as that attracts attention) to the situation. But that approach is fundamentally wrong.

Now, in any dynamic and rapidly changing market such as storage where trends, such as software-defined solutions and Flash technologies are transforming vendor and customer expectations, and where global IT trends, like cloud, big data, and mobile also have an immense impact, there are likely to be challenges. That is especially the case where both established vendors and newer players duke it out.

The key is not to panic. And that is why it is so important to IBM’s storage customers that the company is staying the course. This does not mean standing still, but rather progressing in a measured manner. IBM’s recent 4th quarter storage announcements do not contain any blockbusters. For that we can be grateful as blockbusters absorb all the attention and we have to expend a lot of thought, time and energy in trying to understand what impact the blockbuster will have.

And, in the process, we are likely to ignore numerous product enhancements that can be beneficial to customers and are also more easily understood and adopted. Substance rather than the stylish glitz of a blockbuster is how we might describe it.

These enhancements are mainly around what IBM refers to as its three storage pillars — software-defined storage (SDS), Flash and virtualization, which can each provide significant positive impacts; SDS can lead to supporting new workloads and performance improvements; Flash can yield otherwise not realistically obtainable performance improvement at an acceptable cost; virtualization can provide optimization improvements that lead to a reduction in storage requirements, as well as declines in facilities costs.

Remember — and we are not ignoring the cloud or its impact here — that we are talking about storage that businesses actually buy and deploy to support their own business functions. By definition, these solutions are not the “commodity-style” products that serve as a foundation for many cloud offerings. Instead, they support the combination of purpose-built software in conjunction with storage architectures that yield the ability to manage workloads from data services perspectives, such as performance, security, and data protection, including availability. Those features are simply not available from a bare-bones commodity hardware approach that looks good from a price-per-piece of physical storage perspective but ignore data services that add value and provide better overall economics.

Let’s look at just five examples of IBM’s efforts in these areas.

Making Storwize Data Systems more secure

The Storwize family is the anchor for the company’s open systems storage. IBM announced up to double IOPS (over previous generation products) for compressed workloads. Getting double your storage for roughly half the cost is always a good deal. But the bigger change is encryption for block data (with a statement of direction for file data). Encryption is performed by hardware in the array controller so that there is no performance impact on read/write performance. There is also no need to buy new drives, since the feature works with existing Storwize drives.

Now, this is a good thing since, when an organization decommissions and sells an array, no costly secure erase process has to be performed. It also helps to protect against the inadvertent disclosure of data if drives are removed (such as during servicing). Now, you might say that this is no big deal but yes, it is. The reason is that encryption is very likely to become a best practice that IT can use to protect itself from even a hint of a possible data breach. While it does not even remotely solve all data breach issues, IBM’s approach allows customers to easily get a large number of problems out of the way so they can focus on other security points.

Providing “always-on” business continuity, even in a major disaster with the DS8870

The DS8000 is IBM’s solution for large-scale enterprise class environments (such as the mainframe systems used in mission-critical applications). Disaster recovery in a business continuous manner where absolutely no downtime is acceptable is critical for owners of such systems. For those ultra-important applications, a primary site with a single synchronous remote back-up site is not enough. IBM has long enabled supporting back-up at a third site, but one with asynchronous mirroring. However, that could mean a loss of a few seconds in restoration, which would be unacceptable for applications that require not even a single second delay or hiccup.

With its enhanced DS8870 flagship array, IBM now allows customers to support multiple target peer-to-peer remote sites that are all synchronous. Now, obviously this product is for the select few large enterprises that have extremely demanding availability requirements even in the face of a major disaster. But what it illustrates (in conjunction with its other announcements) is that IBM is continuing to drive innovations for its most demanding customers.

Flash is a mainstay in IBM Storage

IBM is pursuing a “Flash Everywhere” strategy whose success it believes has been validated by Gartner, which in June ranked IBM #1 in worldwide market share for Flash. Then in August, Gartner made IBM a Flash market Leader using its familiar Magic Quadrant methodology. IBM asserts that the improved FlashSystem V840 all-Flash array costs less than disk-based systems while delivering over 5x the performance of disk. The company also provides five years of full-wear maintenance to allay any concerns about the robustness of all-Flash technology over time. It also offers Real-time Compression™ (RTC) for active and inactive data with limited performance degradation. Not all applications compress well, but compression is more or less a must with Flash technology. The FlashSystem V840 also supports integration with IBM file storage products, namely the Storwize V7000 Unified product and with Elastic Storage. Offering users the choice of a standalone all-Flash array or one that integrates with other IBM storage products provides customers extra flexibility and choice.

The music of software-defined storage

Hardware is the theater where data resides, but software provides the music that gets the data to dance while service commands, such as copy, migration and performance metrics set the necessary pace. Thus, IBM is placing an emphasis on storage software, notably software-defined storage solutions, such as Elastic Storage. IBM points to its success in this space with the validation of International Data Corporation (IDC) market research ranking IBM as the top ranking supplier of Software Defined Storage Platforms for the second quarter 2014. No wonder then that IBM’s announcement highlighted its data-centric Elastic Storage Server that can scale from 40 TB to hundreds of petabytes, if necessary.

Beating the drum for cost effective storage for massive amounts of data

Now, how should it be said? Tape is not the most glamourous storage technology. However, many organizations are accumulating great volumes of static, rarely accessed data. Yes, disposing much of this information would be nice, but, quite frankly, that is not likely to happen to the extent that it should. For these sorts of data, tape offers a cost effective, secure home (since tape remains more in the background or even offline, hacking is difficult if not impossible). A secure copy is also useful for more active data as well, such as through backup. I confess that I am an advocate for tape as part of the storage portfolio mix needed by many or most enterprises. So IBM’s announcement of its enhanced TS1150 tape drive for open systems caught my eye. The tape media have a 10 TB native capacity, which is a 250% improvement over the previous generation, which means that IBM’s TS3500 and TS4500 tape libraries can now handle substantially more data than they used to.

Mesabi Musings

In short, these announcements prove that IBM continues to maintain a steady course through the stormy seas of storage change. This benefits the IBM customers who depend on traditional arrays for mainstay processes, such as encryption for Storwize and multi-site business continuity for DS8870 environments. But the company is also guiding customers through new waters, such as markets where Flash continues to make its presence felt with products like the all-Flash V840 array.

IBM is also braving the tsunami of software-defined storage continues with innovations like its Elastic Storage solutions. And let’s not ignore the need for basic, portside offerings, such as the cost effective advantages that tape brings, such as those found in the enhanced TS1150 tape drive. Overall, IBM having a steady hand on the tiller to steer a good course is not a bad thing, and often results in very good things for its customers.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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