What the Heck is Going On in the Data Storage Industry?

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What a wild few months it’s been for the data storage industry — and for IT in general.

Since Oracle (NASDAQ: ORCL) up and bought Sun Microsystems (NASDAQ: JAVA), it seems like all hell has broken loose. Or did it start when Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) introduced its Unified Computing System (UCS)?

Whatever sparked it, it’s been a nutty year for the IT industry, and data storage vendors have been at the heart of it. EMC (NYSE: EMC) and NetApp (NASDAQ: NTAP) have been fighting over Data Domain (NASDAQ: DDUP). Broadcom (NASDAQ: BRCM) has launched a hostile bid for Emulex (NYSE: ELX). IBM (NYSE: IBM) and HP (NYSE: HPQ) have been funneling business to Brocade (NASDAQ: BRCD) and away from Cisco. And HP managed to lure away EMC’s top storage official. Have we left anything out?

Illuminata analyst John Webster thinks the seeds for the current upheaval in the IT industry were sowed years ago, when EMC acquired server virtualization leader VMware (NYSE: VMW).

“You can trace it all back to when EMC acquired VMware, a brilliant move on EMC’s part,” said Webster. “Virtualization begets this cloud idea, and everybody seems to be agreeing that the cloud is the future.”

Regardless of what started the whole mess, there appears to be no stopping it now. And most analysts agree on where it’s heading — into an even more intense period of consolidation and vendor jockeying.

“Clearly, some of the consolidation is brought on by the economic situation resulting in the opportunistic purchase of relatively cheap intellectual property/market share, and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of this,” said Mark Peters, an analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group. “It can also lead to more sudden-friends-syndrome to restrict choice and maximize vendor revenues/margins.”

The Future Turns Cloudy

The upheaval goes well beyond the data storage market and concerns IT as a whole. Peters believes that consolidation of the entire IT stack is underway.

“Once the cat is out of the bag — that commodity components can work just fine; that huge efficiency improvements are possible; that SSD is not just for the lunatic fringe; that scale up/out can support enterprise applications; that storage networking and virtualization are natural siblings of server virtualization — the cat isn’t going back into the bag,” said Peters.

Webster sees the IT industry heading toward an integrated stack that encompasses servers, the network, storage, management apps and security, furthering the overall cloud vision.

“Cisco UCS shows the beginnings of where the cloud infrastructure play is going,” said Webster.

Oracle’s acquisition of Sun will likely result in similarly integrated products. And watch out for competitive offerings from HP and IBM in the near future. Webster sees this as the latest evolution of IT: from the large centralized mainframe, where everything was inside one room in big boxes, to the “disaggregation” of the client/server and PC revolutions, and now the re-aggregation and recentralization with VMware as the catalyst.

Leading the charge are various juggernauts such as IBM and HP, as well as combinations such as EMC/VMware/Cisco and Oracle/Sun, as well as Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT), Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), all trying to amass more cloud clout.

Oracle’s Murky Moves

Oracle’s goals are perhaps the most obscure. Will it dump Sun’s tape and disk storage assets despite pledges to keep them? Is Oracle only after Java and Open Solaris, or does it really care about server and storage hardware? Such questions will have to wait until the company reveals more of its plans.

More recently, Oracle acquired Virtual Iron (VI), a move that puzzled many.

“Oracle’s Sun acquisition makes this VI buy particularly confusing,” said Andi Mann, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates. “Sun’s xVM Ops Center arguably does a major part of what VI does. I suspect xVM and OpsCenter may already be dead internally, just waiting for their best parts to be consumed by Oracle VM and Enterprise Manager.”

According to Mann, Oracle Enterprise Manager is underpowered in both virtualization management (managing specific components such as hypervisors and virtual machines) and virtual systems management (VSM — more holistic management of entire virtual systems, including capacity, power, automation, provisioning, configuration, network automation, storage efficiencies, and so on). VI gives some of these capabilities to Oracle.

Mann sees VSM as the reason behind the acquisition madness, as virtualization itself has become a commodity. As many enterprises have already picked the low-hanging fruit of consolidation, the next wave is being driven by demand for higher-level efficiencies around staff efficiency, power management, higher resource utilization, and the like. This is opening up a market for broad VSM — an area where tools are still relatively basic.

EMC, NetApp as Takeover Targets?

Speculation is rife that EMC is about to be snapped up by Cisco, rumors that have been around in one form or another for some time but have gained steam with the rapid consolidation and change that has swept the IT industry this year.

The argument appears to be that EMC is only taking in $15 billion a year in sales, so that leaves it far behind the likes of Microsoft, Cisco, IBM and HP, and perhaps not big enough to become dominant on its own as the IT stack becomes integrated.

EMC, for one, doesn’t buy that argument.

“We are not for sale, and we see plenty of opportunities for growth,” EMC CEO Joe Tucci said last month. “We are looking at opportunistic acquisitions to consolidate and strengthen our competitive position.”

To survive, Mann suggests that EMC needs to ramp up its VSM capabilities, either through partnership, OEM, or acquisition. The company could possibly build its own offerings using its existing elements for capacity, performance, network automation, storage efficiency and security.

Peters predicts that a lot of the little guys and startups in storage and other IT spaces will be snapped up faster than before, as the fewer, bigger brands jockey for position. Where does this leave the ‘mid-size’ storage companies? He thinks that EMC and NetApp are both in a perilous position.

β€œIt seems almost odd to discuss NetApp and EMC as companies that might not be around as we know them.”

— Mark Peters

“It seems almost odd to discuss NetApp and EMC as companies that might not be around as we know them,” said Peters. “NetApp is the more vulnerable on a purely logical basis.”

Webster concurs that NetApp is a more likely target. But he also places Brocade on the potential acquisition list. As for EMC, he thinks the Cisco partnership works even without EMC being gobbled up. But the company could be pushed over the edge by its shareholders. He gives the example of the ongoing Broadcom-Emulex drama. Emulex is fighting tooth and nail to avoid the deal.

“It doesn’t matter if they want to be acquired or not,” said Webster. “If shareholders want it, then that is what will happen. It’s the same with EMC.”

Greg Schulz, founder of the Storage IO Group consultancy, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Cisco move occurred due to the obvious synergies and the fact that Cisco has plenty of money.

“There are a series of domino effects ongoing, and Oracle buying Sun could be a response to Cisco’s recent moves,” said Schulz. “If Cisco makes the move further into the blade space, then they probably have to acquire EMC to be viable, as they would have stepped on HP and IBM.”

On the other hand, this could be a whole lot of idle posturing that comes to naught. Schulz gives the example of the intelligent switch market that was all the rage several years ago. Brocade bought Rhapsody, Sun acquired Pyrus, and other small vendors were eaten up in a bid to make sure that no one was left out of the party. Yet intelligent switches never really gained traction.

That said, the big IT players will make their moves anyway.

“Companies are converging to gain synergies, so more acquisitions are coming,” said Schulz. “The strong get stronger and the weak can sometimes be acquired. Some actually want to be acquired.”

Tut Tut, Looks Like Rain

While the cloud may be a big part of the rush toward an integrated stack and next-generation data centers, Webster believes that it won’t all take one form.

“IT is never one thing; instead of a single paradigm, there are always different permutations,” he said. “Some will want private clouds and others will be happy with buying services outside from providers via infrastructure as cloud. And then there will be multiple variations. Whatever happens, we better get ready for rainy season.”

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Drew Robb
Drew Robb
Drew Robb is a contributing writer for Datamation, Enterprise Storage Forum, eSecurity Planet, Channel Insider, and eWeek. He has been reporting on all areas of IT for more than 25 years. He has a degree from the University of Strathclyde UK (USUK), and lives in the Tampa Bay area of Florida.
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