CRN Interview: Intel's Mike Wall Voices Custom Storage Strategy

Mike Wall, general manager of marketing for Intel's Storage Group, and Scott Peiffer, director of storage systems marketing, spoke with CRN senior editor Joseph Kovar about Intel's storage strategy and plans to deliver building blocks for the whitebox storage channel.

CRN: How important is storage to Intel?

Wall: First of all, storage is a great growth opportunity for the company, both from a microprocessor perspective as well as for our storage platform business, the whitebox business. It's a revenue growth opportunity for the company.

In addition, storage happens to be one of the unique market segments where we provide key ingredients to all platforms. Storage is a key ingredient for servers, desktops and mobile PCs. Regardless of the platform, we consider the storage ingredients a valuable feature of any platform. It has both a horizontal strategic value to the company and a new revenue growth opportunity as a vertical in its own right.

CRN: When did Intel first get into the system-level storage products?

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Peiffer: The first shipment for an integrated storage solution was Q4 2004. That was the SSR316MJ2, a 3U, 16-drive scalable SAN solution.

CRN: What made Intel get into the system-level storage side?

Peiffer: Growth opportunities and alignment with server sales, offering a complete solution of servers and storage together in the direction of the storage market. Requests from customers was another big factor in our entering that market. Our channel resellers really like the fact they can buy multiple different levels of product integration from Intel.

Wall: From a strategic perspective, we've been very successful over the last decade utilizing standards and standard building blocks and processors to do one-way through n-way servers, driving down the total cost of ownership, and driving a lot of volume. We see this as very analogous to what's about to transpire in the storage marketplace — more systems based on standards, driving down the total cost of ownership. And we feel there's a fair amount of price elasticity to it as well, and that there will be a large volume opportunity.

CRN: Has that volume opportunity showed itself yet?

Wall: Like any new business, it does take time to establish. And we are in the growth phase.

CRN: Who does Intel see as its key storage system competition?

Wall: We compete and cooperate with many of our customers. There are a lot of home-grown solutions out in the market, especially the smaller startups that don't have the same support and infrastructure that Intel provides. We typically compete with them in the smaller VAR or reseller segments. Some of our regional OEMs compete with other more popular storage brands. They take the Intel building blocks like RAID cards and servers and boxes and create their own solutions.

CRN: All of them work with Intel and compete against Intel?

Wall: One difference between the storage market segment and servers is that we have a unique opportunity here to actually create new categories of solutions. Even though the server market based on IA microprocessors is still a growing business — we're cranking the treadmill on new processors, new chipsets, getting them into the marketplace as quickly as possible, which is what we do — in our case, here in storage ... we're also looking at new storage solutions in new categories.

For example, [take] some of the low-end solutions that we've been promoting in the market for the last couple of years, like the four-drive low-end NAS solution that we just announced back in February. We've been promoting that concept for our silicon solutions for the past two years or more. And we see opportunities to create even more categories that are adjacent to that small business solution, even moving down into the digital home.

CRN: Is Intel driving the market through the silicon or through the systems solutions?

Wall: We want to enable it through our silicon building blocks, but especially in a new category, there will be times when we need to build a new solution with our silicon technology and put that in the marketplace to get a category really ramping. And then, as it becomes more of commonplace, then we'll determine whether or not to stay in it with our whitebox solution. CRN: Can you give an example? You mentioned the four-drive SMB NAS. Is that an example of getting into the market with a new type of solution?

Wall: That's an example. I would say that that was done a little bit later than we had hoped. . . .

CRN: I'm asking because there's an awful lot of vendors out there with that kind of solution.

Wall: Here's a little bit of background on our organization. Scott was part of the server group, and one of the founders of the storage whitebox business as part of the server whitebox business. I was running the storage component division, a silicon division. From a silicon perspective, we've been out promoting these types of new categories for years now. We would talk to Scott and his team about participating in solutions.

But now that we're all part of the storage group working on the same strategy, you will see some more breakthrough systems and categories launched by Intel to accelerate the adoption of these new categories and silicon products.

CRN: What are some categories you are looking at?

Peiffer: Continue to expand the entry segment, lower and higher, as we add more features and usability to our small office, home office, and SMB segments.

Wall: When I say new categories, you can look at that two ways: One way can be the type of solution I just referred to, the small-business offices and home. Also, [you can look] at how this device can be utilized. We partner with different suppliers to add different types of capabilities on that hardware platform.

CRN: Can you give me an example of that?

Peiffer: Sure, our Compass Creek platform, product code SSR212CC, that is a generic storage server that we're doing some certifications with Microsoft for Windows Storage Server, with FalconStor for IPstore, with Open-E as an iSCSI target. There are a number of applications being validated with our platform to help take it from a server to a storage system at multiple levels of integration.

Wall: Just to clarify Scott's point, Compass Creek is a hardware-only platform that we're putting out there for folks to load their own software or develop their own software. At the same time, we have our whitebox solutions that come with a NAS stack or a SAN stack. We're doing both. But with the hardware-only solution, we're creating an environment where lots of smaller companies that have not had the opportunity to have a world-class hardware platform, to develop and even productize their solutions and have access to it on a big way.

CRN: Intel recently signed an OEM deal with EMC, resulting in the SSR212PP, or Pyramid Peak, which just started shipping. If a channel partner configures it for a customer, the customer essentially will have an EMC AX150 without the EMC name, right?

Peiffer: Yes. With Intel customer support.

CRN: Any other technologies that Intel developed or is working on with partners that will broaden the reach of Intel's storage boxes similar to the EMC technology?

Peiffer: None that we're able to talk about at this time.

CRN: For the rest of the year, what are some things that we can expect from Intel in terms of product directions?

Wall: There'll probably be some news on new silicon products, several of those. I expect there will be another new platform or two based on those silicon products. And we are working with a few third parties to integrate, as we mentioned earlier, new usage models that would enhance our solutions. So really, whether its an application, a silicon, or a whitebox, you'll see announcements in all areas.

CRN: New silicon? Can you give me any hints?

Wall: It's really cool stuff. More features and more performance than anything we've had in the past. It'll deliver the best price-performance. I know that's kind of corny, but that's about as far as I can go now.

CRN: When you say new silicon, are you talking storage-specific silicon, or about making use of Intel's existing microprocessors or other controllers?

Wall: We're talking about storage-specific, because we're totally focused on storage. And utilizing mainstream silicon as well. One reason we brought this group together is on the silicon side, to work closely with storage providers in the marketplace to understand their feature requirements over time. One of the key things we've learned is, a lot of things that come to fruition in the server marketplace are actually required in the storage marketplace early on. Things like 64-bit support. And so, we're looking to understand more about customers' storage requirements, integrate those into our system-level technology and our chipsets going forward, and put those into mass production.