EMC's forecast: cloud storage and flash drives

EMC predicts big things from flash drives and cloud storage.

EMC executives contend that enterprise flash drives and cloud storage will profoundly change their industry over the next five to 10 years, offering faster, more efficient storage, and highly scalable Web-based platforms that reduce demand on data centers.

At this week's EMC World in Las Vegas, the company's annual meeting for customers, partners, analysts and media, CEO Joe Tucci and his team spoke optimistically about both technologies and offered a few details on how EMC intends to utilize them.

Tucci called flash "the one thing that will change the storage industry more than anything else over the next 10 years." He also promised that Maui, the software component of EMC's future cloud storage offering, would start shipping this summer. (Compare storage products.)

The potential of flash and cloud storage "are the two themes that are starting to resonate as far as what's next," says Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Brian Babineau. "Cloud computing has been getting a lot of attention because we know it's coming; we just don't know in what flavor, how soon, and how people will make money on it."

Switching the media from rotating disk drives to solid-state drives using flash memory, as EMC did in January when it began offering enterprise-class flash storage, will have significant consequences, Babineau says. A start-up called Pliant Technology  has since joined EMC in building solid-state flash drives for enterprises.

Flash still has to come down in price significantly to become a viable alternative to disk in most companies, EMC officials acknowledged. Disk will remain the less expensive option in most use cases for the foreseeable future and an important part of a customer's arsenal for many years, they said.

But EMC storage president David Donatelli predicted that flash storage will be nearly as affordable as high-end disk drives by the end of 2010. And though EMC isn't the company building the flash chip — that would be STEC — Donatelli said EMC will use its influence to bring the price down.

EMC's bulk buying power will go a long way toward reducing the cost to customers, Babineau says. "I think they're going to drive the cost down and make it an alternative to disk," he says. "If you're a big consumer with a product and you buy in bulk, you can lower the cost. We've seen this movie before. EMC did this a lot with the enterprise disk drive market."

In cloud storage, EMC bought online backup provider Mozy last September, and for the last few months has been shipping beta versions of its Hulk hardware, a bulk, high-density storage product. Hulk will be paired with the Maui file system software. EMC has been vague about these products, but Tucci said more details will be forthcoming soon.

"You'll see it launched with a formal name and fanfare shortly," he said.

EMC's hardware and software might help the emerging cloud storage market, in which vendors such as Amazon and Nirvanix are offering highly distributed and scalable storage systems that are accessed via the Web.

"Clearly, [EMC] is very focused on the cloud," says analyst Rob Enderle, adding that Hulk and Maui put EMC in a good position to tackle this growing segment. But Enderle thinks Tucci is underestimating the speed with which cloud storage will transform how customers store and access information. "I actually heard Tucci say to the analysts that he didn't think the data center would move to the cloud in his lifetime," Enderle says, noting that he disagrees. "By the end of 10 years I think we are going to be saying the data center is in the cloud. These things tend to happen a lot faster than we anticipate."

One obvious roadblock is the security of moving data from corporate data centers to Web-based systems. Data becomes less secure "by definition" when it leaves a customer's own data center, says security analyst Joel Snyder. Tucci predicted cloud data will actually be easier to protect, despite being more easily shared and accessible from any device. RSA security capabilities embedded into the EMC cloud infrastructure will help make this happen, the company says.

Flash and cloud storage both will help EMC make plays in the small business and consumer markets. Flash is unique in that it is gaining a foothold in both the low end of the storage market with pocket flash drives and with the high-end corporate customers, Enderle notes. Cloud storage is making it easier for individuals to store and back up data.

Six years ago EMC made all of its profits in the high-end storage marketplace, but is making a concerted effort to attract individual consumers as well as small and midsize businesses, Tucci said.

"They clearly now are gaining the look and feel of an emerging consumer company, and that could go in a number of really interesting directions," Enderle says.

While EMC hypes the future potential of flash and cloud storage, the vendor used EMC World to release products aimed at helping customers better manage the rapidly growing amounts of data they have today. One of the keys is spreading EMC's de-duplication technology across more products in its portfolio.

Duplicate data is a huge problem for businesses struggling with an average 60% data growth per year. "Then you add in the fact that data center real estate's expensive, power is nowhere to be found in a lot of cities, a lot of areas," Babineau says. "The only way you can meet your challenges is to not store your data over and over again, replicate it, back it up multiple times."

This week's releases bring de-duplication to the new EMC Disk Library products and the pre-existing Avamar backup and recovery products. The variety is important because Avamar gives customers ability to de-duplicate at the source side (before data is backed up) and Disk Library provides de-duplication at the target side (the final device the data is stored on), Babineau says.

The EMC Disk Library 3D 3000, a new LAN backup-to-disk system that targets midsize businesses, uses policy-based data deduplication and IP replication to ensure availability.

EMC World, beyond being a forum for product announcements and overviews of future trends, serves as a classroom of sorts with 556 sessions filled with keynote addresses and technical overviews of EMC technologies and products.

Babineau says he was surprised EMC was able to draw more than 9,000 customers and others to the event during tough economic times. John Lyons, a system engineer with JJWild, an integrator for healthcare companies, attended EMC World to learn about products and attend advanced sessions on products such as EMC's DiskXtender archiving software.

"I'm looking at the archive world and backup solutions," Lyons said. "We're doing a scanning and archiving ILM solution, and basically what I wanted to do was create designs on backing up the solution as well as building archive data."

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