Cisco, EMC Competing PCIe Flash Storage Strategies Raise Concerns

Long-term partners EMC and Cisco, co-investors in converged infrastructure vendor VCE, are pursuing their own server-based PCIe flash storage strategies and in the process seeding possible confusion and concerns about their partnership going forward.

The two vendors have adopted rival PCIe flash storage technologies as a way to extend control of the storage infrastructure to inside the server, an important part of developing converged infrastructure offerings that ties storage, server and networking technology into a single platform.

PCIe-based flash memory storage adapters sit inside servers to act as a high-performance cache for frequently accessed data, thereby increasing the speed at which that data can be accessed.

[Related: Data Center Decision: Converged Infrastructure Vs. Best-Of-Breed ]

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Hopkinton, Mass.-based storage king EMC developed VFCache, a PCIe flash memory solution based on the company's own software and the Nytro WarpDrive PCIe flash adapter from Milpitas, Calif.-based LSI.

San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco, developer of the high-performance UCS blade server line, in June signed an OEM relationship with Fusion-io, a relative newcomer to the business whose primary product is high-performance PCIe flash storage adapters for use in servers.

That followed the May news of Cisco's signing of an agreement with EMC and LSI to bring the VFCache technology to its UCS blade servers.

Cisco's overall PCIe flash storage adapter strategy will become clear in the second half of 2012, which is when it plans to offer adapters from both Fusion-io and LSI, the latter in conjunction with EMC's VFCache software.

One of the first implementations will be by VCE, the Cisco and EMC joint-venture company which combines Cisco's server and networking technology, EMC's storage technology, and virtualization technology from Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware into the Vblock converged infrastructure solutions.

A VCE spokesperson said the company's plan is to prioritize on the solution from LSI, which is partnering with both Cisco and EMC, and that VCE has no plans to integrate Fusion-io technology into its Vblock systems.

One solution provider close to EMC, who preferred to remain anonymous, called Cisco's OEM deal with Fusion-io a slap in the face of long-term partner EMC.

"[Cisco Chairman and CEO John] Chambers is smart," the solution provider said. "He's looking at new ways to sell UCS. He doesn't want to give EMC too much power."

NEXT: Strains In The Cisco-EMC Relationship?

Jamie Shepard, executive vice president of technology solutions at ICI, a Marlborough, Mass.-based solution provider and partner to EMC, Cisco and VCE, stopped short of calling Cisco's move a slap in EMC's face.

"Chambers will do the right thing for Cisco, despite what it does to partners," Shepard said. "I see strains in VCE. Nobody there would say there is a strain. But, Cisco is very committed to VCE and Vblock, to Fusion-io, and to another flash memory company, if rumors are correct."

Dan Weiss, CEO of Varrow, a Greensboro, N.C.-based solution provider and partner to EMC, Cisco and VCE, said it's no surprise that Cisco signed an OEM relationship with Fusion-io.

"Cisco never made any bones about its strategy," Weiss said. "They're out for Cisco. If they can leverage VCE for Cisco, they will. If they can leverage FlexPod for Cisco, they will. If they can leverage Fusion-io for Cisco, they will."

Fusion-io is getting a lot of buzz not only with its Cisco relationship but also with other relationships it has with HP, IBM, Dell and others, Weiss said. "But in the end, the Fusion-io offering is just a point solution," he said. "That's not to put Fusion-io down for what they do. I see them expanding their business and then someday getting acquired."

EMC seems to have a better strategy when it comes to PCIe flash storage in servers, Weiss said.

"For storage, you want to put the right data on the right storage and at the right price point," he said. "Tiered storage that is automated at the block level is the most efficient answer. Customers would like to have a single offering where they can just dial up or dial down the different types of storage based on their data. They may want to set the dial so some storage is local on a specific server using technology like Fusion-io or VFCache, or dial the storage onto different arrays for fully shared access."

For Fusion-io, getting the Cisco relationship was an important step away from having to rely on the small handful of large Web companies like Yahoo and Facebook upon which the bulk of its revenue is dependent, Shepard said.

"You know that was a sweet deal," Shepard said. "Fusion-io sees it doesn't want to hang all its revenue on a couple of big companies. So, this is an opportunity for both Fusion-io and Cisco. It is a sweet deal to get into the data center."

NEXT: Maybe More A Case Of Multiple Partnerships

Cisco declined to comment for this story. However, the company has made it clear in the past that it often forms partnerships with vendors who typically compete against each other. This includes Cisco's strong ties with both EMC and its primary rival NetApp in the storage business, or with VMware and its arch-rival Microsoft.

Barry Ader, senior director of product management for EMC's Flash business unit, said the eventual PCIe flash memory adopter in VCE Vblocks will be a joint solution between EMC, LSI and Cisco.

"VCE was excited to look at the VFCache software and LSI hardware solution," Ader said. "They have no plans to integrate the Fusion-io solution. VCE looks at EMC, Cisco and VMware technologies."

Cisco will look at a variety of solutions for its business and will potentially work with suppliers other than EMC, Ader said.

"Fusion-io does not have the software strength that EMC has with VFCache," he said. "We believe VFCache will be the best solution in the market. Our biggest advantage is that VFCache is a caching device that protects data by having a copy stored on the storage device in addition to the copy in the server."

Fusion-io declined to comment on this story. However, a company spokesperson reaffirmed a statement from Fusion-io CEO and Chairman David Flynn who in February called EMC's VFCache a limited approach to solving data center data growth problems because it leverages flash only as a cache for expensive backend EMC storage systems.

"In contrast, Fusion-io achieves application performance through the use of flash as a memory platform in the server. We believe ours is the optimal approach to maximizing data center efficiency and performance needs that increase in importance with the continued adoption of cloud computing. Customers don’t want to pay twice for reliable performance, and they don’t have to with Fusion-io," Flynn wrote.

For ICI's Shepard, the choice is simple.

"We're the first to buy EMC's VFCache and put it in UCS servers," he said. "We get them through Avnet. So when we write up a quote for a UCS chassis, we automatically add a line item for VFCache."

NEXT: Begs The Question Of Whether Cisco's Eyeing The Storage Market

Varrow's Weiss said the adoption of Fusion-io technology brings rumors of Cisco one day wanting to enter the storage market, Weiss said.

There are many rumors about Cisco looking to get into storage, or perhaps buying EMC, he said.

"They are urban legends," he said. "It would be a bold move for Cisco. But then again, Cisco started in the server business from zero only three years ago, and it's now in the top three. That's a tough market. Storage is an even tougher market. But, there's still a lot of room for innovation."

If HP or IBM were to buy Fusion-io, the impact across the industry would be limited, Weiss said. "But if Cisco bought them, it would be very provocative," he said. "It would put Cisco in the storage business. It would put them moving towards HP's model of putting storage in their server blades."

Should Cisco someday become a storage vendor, it would become a major headache for channel partners, Weiss said. "Choosing between EMC and Cisco would be tough for a company like Varrow, which depends on its relationship with both," he said.