EMC vs. Hitachi: Ready For Business

These days, EMC clearly is no longer shrugging off HP's choice. The storage market has changed so much that EMC's once-untouchable Symmetrix flagship subsystem faced a marketing attack of its own. Competitors were whispering in customers' ears that EMC's bus architecture was aging and could not meet the storage needs of the future.

"It was a do-or-die situation for them," says Mark Oaks, co-founder and vice president of the management and technical division at Technical Solutions Inc., a Hitachi reseller.

Facing sagging margins on its high-end sales and a taint on its brand, EMC clearly had to make a move. It needed a technology shake-up to at least maintain a strong foothold in the estimated $5 billion enterprise space. In February, the company rolled out the sixth generation of its high-end subsystem, the Symmetrix DMX2000. And while the product set still held on to the venerable Symmetrix title, it came with an overhauled internal design that EMC executives are touting as an engineering feat.

The Symmetrix DMX storage subsystem was engineered with a brand-new architecture called Direct Matrix. It boasts the kind of power EMC executives say will blow away the competition. EMC CEO and president Joseph Tucci made it clear what was at stake with the launch of the Symmetrix DMX800, 1000 and 2000 products: "We have bet the farm on the DMX line. This year, we expect to take significant market share."

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But Hitachi isn't taking that news lying down. Over the past few months, the vendor's enterprise storage has gained enough respect that customers consider its Freedom Storage Lightning an equal in large, competitive bids. And Hitachi has helped build up its nearly nonexistent brand through its partner and reseller deals with HP and Sun Microsystems,both of which also are leveraging their respective channels.

It's no stretch to say that EMC faces a competitive assault on several fronts. Many server vendors now have storage offerings. Analysts are finding the kind of storage platform a customer chooses is closely tied to the server brand he uses. For instance, IBM has a much easier time selling its Enterprise Storage System, a.k.a. Shark, in environments that use the AIX operating system or IBM 390 systems.

EMC and Hitachi, however, are the only two top storage players that don't sell servers,but Hitachi's partners do sell servers. No doubt, the introduction of this new design will prompt much debate in the storage community in the next few months over which company has engineered the better system. Is it Hitachi's crossbar, switch architecture with an internal virtualization function so sophisticated that even top chief technology officers have trouble describing it? Or is it EMC's deep, point-to-point architecture that executives liken to giving each controller its very own highway to push data through?

Thus far, Hitachi remains confident: "Basically, we have something that is two generations ahead of the competition," boasted Hubert M. Yoshida, vice president and CTO at Hitachi Data Systems, just before EMC launched DMX.

Both EMC and Hitachi partners need to take a solid look at both these technologies to understand their intrinsic engineering differences, because resellers and vendors are facing a far more educated storage customer these days. EMC competitors say that EMC needed to make some kind of technology splash to maintain the solid relationship it has with the Global 2000. But the question is whether the vendor now can chip away at Hitachi's growing enterprise customer base. It won't be easy, considering EMC's sales force will come up against second- and third-generation Hitachi technology. "EMC now is fighting an uphill battle with the technology," Oaks says.

Assessing the Technologies

In mid-March, International Data Corp. released its quarterly tracker figures for worldwide disk-storage systems. The report shows that within the worldwide disk storage external RAID category, HP (now including Compaq storage), EMC, IBM, Hitachi and Sun Microsystems are the top five companies in revenue sales. It's important to note that Hitachi does not get credit in this report for its storage sales done through HP and Sun, just like EMC does not get credit for storage sales made through Dell Computer.

But often, customers single out EMC and Hitachi as those companies with the strongest competing enterprise technologies.

"I think (IBM's) Shark is out of it," says Steve Hunt, a SAN manager at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. "Shark has had performance problems. I talked to some fairly large Shark customers who have actually taken out their Sharks and replaced them with EMC or Hitachi."

In the next few months, many customers are going to look under the hoods of both EMC's and Hitachi's subsystems. When they do that, they will see the companies have taken different engineering approaches in the design. Hitachi is sticking to its trademark switch architecture,one that is likened to a multiple, interconnected highway with multiple on-ramps and off-ramps. EMC, however, has a deep, point-to-point connection that customers compare to the multiple bridges commuters use to drive in and out of Manhattan.

"EMC took the hardwired approach," says Hunt, a former Hitachi user. "Its position is that with a hardware solution, it is less likely to break, and it's a lot faster. EMC says 'Hardwiring will always go faster than any kind of software you can put in place.' And this is proven out. If you can find a hardware way to solving a problem, instead of using software, it's going to be a lot faster."

That happens to be a standard axiom among storage technologists. In fact, when EMC held its launch at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York, an EMC executive recounted a joke that drew a room full of chuckles among engineering-savvy customers: "You know what they say, hardware guys create performance and the software guys piss it away."

EMC, with its DMX800, 1000 and 2000 subsystems, has taken a hardwired approach to creating multiple parallel paths between the front- and back-end controllers. In other words, those controllers get their own dedicated paths, through their own cache, to transfer data. Theoretically, EMC officials say future DMX versions should be able to grow to provide up to 128 GB of global memory. Moreover, the architecture can handle up to 32 independent cache regions, each with a separate logical access. EMC engineers found this design more preferable to Hitachi's switch architecture. "We looked at a switch architecture. In fact, we patented one. But we also felt it could not go far enough," says Dave Donatelli, EMC's executive vice president of storage platform operations.

However, Hitachi has designed a box that internally has a distinctive physical layer and sophisticated virtualization layer that drastically increases the number of ports used to connect external servers and storage arrays. "It's relatively new, and not many people understand it, I suspect," Hitachi's Yoshida says.

For instance, Hitachi's high-end Lightning has 32 physical ports that can increase to 4,096 virtual ports for more connections to servers and disk arrays (with each physical port able to scale up to 128 virtual ports). Each port has its own virtual private storage domain, similar to a network's virtual private network. "This blows the doors off the connectivity constraints we used to have," Yoshida says. "We have had cases where we replaced four or five EMC systems with one of our systems. That was not because of the need for capacity but the need for connectivity."

Shortly after EMC held its DMX launch, Yoshida was asked to give his first impression of the Direct Matrix design. He had a curious response: "I guess my first reaction was that it seemed like it was a backward technology step," he says. "They are going backward because you have all these empty highways with one car on each highway. Now, I'm sure it is very fast, but it is a very poor use of resources."

Analysts agree that the complexity of an architecture with a point-to-point connection drastically increases when another point-to-point connection is added. But EMC is banking that, in the next few years, the density factor will keep pace with EMC's need to increase the number of connections within the system. "They are hoping the technology curve will work in their favor," says Arun Taneja, an independent storage analyst. "Time will tell."

Hitachi's technology belief is that customers shouldn't be forced to buy another subsystem just to get more connectivity. When you talk to Yoshida, he peppers his conversation with words like "switch," connectivity" and "network." He talks about systems that need to sit at the core of the network,such as the Lightning product,to do the heavy lifting of data movement. And then he talks about devices that sit at the edge of the network, like Hitachi's Thunder product, to provide users with quicker access to information. Hitachi still thinks the internal switch design is the best architecture to handle future storage needs.

"What we have been noticing is that as more people are online, data is being hit more often," Yoshida explains. "We are seeing transaction rates growing faster than increases in capacity. So you need to get more performance out of your systems."

Note: EMC made another dramatic shift when it announced its new DMX line. The company now supports a form of parity RAID, which it calls RAID 7 1 or 3 1. That is significant because back in the late 1990s, EMC executives often boasted that they only offered RAID 1 for mirroring because it is superior in performance and fault tolerance. That put customers in a position where they had to buy double the number of drives needed: For every 1 TB of raw capacity bought, customers had to buy another whole terabyte of disk drives to accommodate mirrored data.

At a time of ever-tightening budgets, the competition was slamming EMC on the cost of its drives. Hitachi, which dynamically supports both RAID 1 and RAID 5, would sway customers onto its product by telling them that they only had to purchase an extra 20 percent, or .2 TB, for every 1 TB of raw capacity need.

"For the last five years, EMC and Hitachi have been battling for the fastest drives," Hunt says. "And it really came down to how their arrays were configured and what the I/O was going up against. But for most users out there, the performances are so minor that most of us don't see it. It's very rare I've seen the difference%85.Where this battle is going to end up, I don't know. Both EMC's and Hitachi's hardware are standing up."

In these cost-conscious days, it may come down to price. It's been reported that the list price for a DMX1000 with 12 TB of usable capacity should run about one-third less than the price of a high-performance Symmetrix 8830 sold last year. In the next few months, EMC will be investing heavily in upgrading its current customer base to the new DMX product family.

"If I were EMC, I would be doing the same thing," says Bob Peglar, chief architect at Xiotech, which also sells disk subsystems. "This machine costs less to manufacture. That was one of their internal goals, so their margins can improve. With the Symmetrix 5, their margins couldn't have been much worse."

Choosing Partners

Systems integrators are closely evaluating which company they plan to partner with. Generally, EMC has relegated its partners to selling its midrange Clariion products. But Hitachi has been relying on partners and resellers to spread the gospel about Lightning and its midrange Thunder. Some customers speculate that the ratio is 5-to-1, meaning for every one Hitachi sales person, there are five EMC sales people knocking on customers' doors. It's an aggressive marketing force that many Hitachi resellers are facing. EMC's Tucci explains that the DMX line will probably excite a different kind of partner, such as Accenture, EDS or Unisys.

In particular, the service partners will be able to take advantage of this product family. Ed Hartman, president and COO of IMS Systems, currently has been evaluating both technologies to figure out which to choose as a partner. So far, the assessment is that both companies now have a strong storage portfolio. "I think 'head-to-head' is probably an accurate description of the two companies' technologies," Hartman says. "But my sense is that EMC has an advantage because of the enabling software they have. They have a little bit of a lead on Hitachi in that spot."

So the next criteria partners are looking at is each company's ability to handle channel conflict,in other words, the maturity level of their channel program. Hartman previously was an EMC reseller,back in the days when the company relied heavily on its superior direct sales force, which had no problem coming in and stealing sales from partners. But today, Tucci has made it clear it is reducing overhead costs, thereby forcing EMC to mend its ways with channel partners. EMC still is working on shedding that image. And Hartman says he is willing to give EMC another chance. "I am considering them on the promise that they are going to change," he says.

Integrator Technical Solutions, however, is firmly rooted to its reseller pact with Hitachi. Tom Gotschall, president and COO for the company, says his company used to be a big EMC reseller but got burned so many times with EMC coming in the back door and taking away clients. Teaming up with Hitachi has "been great. Better technology, better partner," he says.

Technical Solutions' Oaks says the company had signed on with Hitachi well before HP had cut its ties with EMC in the late 1990s. Hitachi was embracing the channel back then, setting a goal to generate $2 billion in revenue through the channel. Oaks has not had firsthand look at DMX, but he suspects EMC is facing a tougher sales situation these days. "If EMC has the better box, time will tell," Oaks says. "But I think Hitachi now has some mind share and market share."