IBM goes back to the future in storage

21 Oct 2004

So many big IT companies make big announcements that it is sometimes hard to tell what are the really important new technologies and what are only pretenders to the throne. At a press briefing in Mainz in Germany last week, where IBM unveiled its new enterprise storage system, one sensed there was real substance behind the hype — although there was plenty of the latter too.

In a corporate press release the new products were described as the most significant announcements IBM had made in more than a decade. However at Mainz, Tom Hawk, general manager, enterprise storage at IBM Systems Group, dubbed them as “the single most important announcement in storage in IBM for 50 to 60 years”. What’s a few decades between friends?
The subject of Hawk’s hyperbole were two big black boxes sitting a few feet behind him as he worked the audience with facts, figures and pronouncements of great days to come for IBM’s storage business. The new kit on the block is the DS8000, a 192TB capacity monster aimed at data-hungry industries such as telecoms and financial services, and its smaller brother, the DS6000. This tops out at 67.2TB capacity and, IBM claims, brings the benefits of mainframe computing down to medium-sized enterprises. The new machines will be available this December with prices starting at US$97k for the DS6000 and approximately US$200k for the DS8000.
IBM made it clear that these are the weapons that will wrest back leadership in computer storage. “We will become No 1 in this marketplace,” vowed Kristie Bell, vice-president, storage systems, IBM EMEA. “To do that, we must take share from our competitors but we are confident we can deliver the business benefits.”
IBM’s storage competitors are several including Hewlett-Packard and Hitachi Data
Systems but Bell had a particular competitor in mind — EMC, the global leader in enterprise storage. The prospect of an all-out war between market leader EMC and IBM now looms. Co-founded by Richard Egan, former US Ambassador to Ireland, EMC stole a march on rivals in the storage market in the early Nineties by convincing organisations that storage systems rather than servers were the beating heart of their IT infrastructure because that was where their mission-critical data lay. This message was leveraged by an aggressive sales machine, the combination of which made EMC one of the runaway stars of the dotcom era. IBM, the begetter of so many milestones in storage — the first magnetic tape drives in 1952, the first disk storage system in 1956, the first floppy disk in 1971 and the first RAID disk array system in 1988 — was simply left in its wake.
“It was not that many years ago that IBM was the No 1 supplier of storage systems and storage technology,” Hawk commented. “We lost our way for a few years but we believe we can be get back to the No 1 position.”
Hawk added that storage hardware was IBM’s fastest-growing business and was an area of ever-greater strategic importance to IBM’s customers. “It’s not that servers aren’t important but data, management and information are a core life-blood asset of most organisations and, therefore, the ability to use technology to help customers solve their problems becomes very compelling.”
IBM and EMC’s approach to the market is markedly different. EMC says hardware is becoming a commodity; management software is what is really important. Accordingly, the Massachusetts-based company has made several acquisitions in the software area in the past two years. IBM, on the other hand, argues the totality of the storage system is what counts: software is important but so too is hardware and not just storage hardware but the server systems with which it interacts — hence the TotalStorage prefix to its product line.
This view of storage was given some credence by Dr Mitul Mehta, a director at market analyst TekPlus, who spoke at the event. “We believe that the line between server systems and storage will begin to blur as they will be built on similar components — hence enabling virtualisation across an entire enterprise infrastructure.”
Virtualisation software, one of the hottest technologies in data storage for the past two years, gives users a snapshot of their data storage systems by allowing them to consolidate or pool data across heterogeneous storage systems and move data between disk drives as their storage needs dictate. If such technology could work across an organisation’s entire IT infrastructure it would be a potentially hugely useful tool for users and IBM’s argument is that, with its vast breadth of knowledge in computer systems, it is best placed to come up with such innovations.
On the hardware side, too, Big Blue continues to place huge emphasis on innovation. For example, the DS6000 has been engineered to be highly compact such that a single storage unit is not much larger than a VCR but, at 4.7TB, can deliver the storage punch of a physically much larger machine. At the launch, IBM executives took obvious delight in pointing out that the DS6000 is one twentieth the size of the refrigerator-like EMC DMX800 and only half the price. Hawk said this shows that powerful storage boxes need not to be placed in dedicated cabinets or air-conditioned data rooms but can be sited anywhere in the office.
The idea of a 4.7TB machine costing US$97,000 chugging away beside the photocopier in the corner of the office might seem far-fetched today but, as Hawk pointed out, our data usage will only increase in years to come and especially for small businesses with limited office space the so-called ‘form factor’ of storage systems is likely to become an important facet of the buying decision.
While IBM may be gung-ho about its new storage offerings, it still has to go out and sell the things in the marketplace and, for this reason, the company is paying a lot of attention to its channel partnerships – an area that was not always prioritised in the past. On this score, Bell drew laughter when she quipped: “The concept of business partner loyalty used to be a bit of an oxymoron.”
Not any more, according to Simon Egan, alliances director at Morse, a leading IBM business partner in Europe. “We work together on a deal-by-deal basis and work out what resources each of us needs to provide to deliver the best solution,” he said, referring to interaction between Morse and IBM’s own IT services arm, IBM Global Services.
The message from Mainz was clear: IBM is leaving no bases uncovered – from technological innovation to channel strategy – in its quest to become top dog in storage once again.

By Brian Skelly