IBM Lays Out New Storage Strategy: Software-Defined, All-Flash

IBM FlashSystem V9000

IBM's recent release of its new Spectrum-branded software-defined storage technology and its new FlashSystem flash storage array family is telling. The move underscores the importance Big Blue is placing on its storage business even as its data center presence drops with the sale of its x86-based server business.

The new technologies demonstrate that IBM is willing to invest in grabbing a leadership role in the storage industry despite that its revenue and market share continue to fall.

IBM highlighted that willingness with last week's plans to invest over $1 billion in its storage software portfolio over the next five years, with a focus on R&D in cloud storage, object storage, and storage for OpenStack and other open-standard technologies.

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This follows IBM's April 2013 move to invest $1 billion in its flash storage business with a "channel-first" strategy.

The new investment comes as IBM struggles to arrest a drop in storage revenue. During the first quarter of 2014, IBM announced that its quarterly storage revenue fell 23 percent year-over-year, followed by a 12 percent drop in the second quarter. However, by the third quarter of 2014, the decrease in storage revenue slowed to only 6 percent year-over-year, followed by an 8 percent fall in IBM's fourth quarter.

IBM has made serious investments in storage that have not yet been reflected in revenue numbers, said Lief Morin, president of Key Information Systems, a Woodland Hills, Calif.-based solution provider and long-term IBM channel partner.

Morin told CRN that IBM is still the second- or third-largest storage vendor, and that measuring a vendor's storage capabilities in revenue terms does not tell the whole story.

"The total storage industry spend since 2009 has been impacted because of the economy," he said. "If you compare the storage business to 2008, the whole industry is down. The reality of storage is, if you don't consider a single vendor like IBM, the industry is going through a transformation. That transformation is flash. It's the revolution we've been waiting for 50 years."

Morin said he is very optimistic about IBM's storage business.

"And I'm optimistic about the future of storage, period," he said. "People talk about the demise of storage all the time, but continue to snap photos and save data. The effective use of storage is what it's all about, whether you use IBM, EMC, Hewlett-Packard or NetApp."

NEXT: IBM's Software-Defined Storage Tech: IBM Spectrum Storage

Morin said he is extremely positive about IBM's role in the storage industry in the short term. "IBM is coming out with products and strategies that are compelling," he said.

IBM last Tuesday unveiled IBM Spectrum Storage, a software-defined storage portfolio based, in large part, on software from IBM's XIV enterprise-class storage systems.

Included in the portfolio is IBM Spectrum Accelerate, a solution that allows the XIV's enterprise storage intelligence to be available as part of an appliance, a service, or as software. The company said IBM Spectrum Accelerate, which it has released to open source, works to help customers build scalable, enterprise-grade cloud environments. IBM this year also plans to introduce a multicloud connector with IBM Spectrum Storage to help customers dynamically migrate data across multiple clouds.

With Spectrum Accelerate, IBM has extracted the intelligence from the XIV hardware and delivered it in a software form factor, said Jamie Thomas, general manager for storage and software defined systems at IBM.

"It allows clients to deploy XIV in hours as opposed to a typical acquisition, which could take months waiting for hardware delivery and integration into the existing infrastructure," Thomas told CRN. "Accelerate is about being able to more fully support new workloads and, particularly, cloud workloads. Accelerate is a virtual extension of the XIV box."

IBM also unveiled the Spectrum Storage as a rebranding of its entire storage software family, including a number of software-defined solutions running on IBM's SoftLayer cloud service, Thomas said.

"This new announcement says we really believe software-defined storage is not just optimization of infrastructure, but also delivering a full approach to managing and controlling that infrastructure and being able to manage the life cycle of data more effectively," Thomas said.

Morin said software-defined storage is gaining in the upscale storage market segment, where clients are looking for ways to separate the storage functionality from the hardware so they can purchase fewer purpose-built storage devices.

"If you need to store 1 petabyte, and response time is not critical, software-defined storage is a great offering," he said. "IBM's XIV is an enterprise-grade architecture, one that's been tested and proven robust. It differentiates IBM over its competitors."

NEXT: IBM Intros FlashSystem V9000 All-Flash Array

IBM last Thursday followed up with the unveiling of the new IBM FlashSystem V9000 and FlashSystem 900, the latest models in the high-performance all-flash storage technology the company got with its 2012 acquisition of Texas Memory Systems.

IBM has shipped more than 4,000 FlashSystem solutions in the last two years since the product line started, said Michael Kuhn, vice president and business line executive for IBM FlashSystem.

Kuhn, speaking at a press conference where the new solutions were unveiled, said the all-flash IBM FlashSystem V9000 scales up to four units with extra shelves to provide up to 2.2 petabytes of effective capacity per rack. The solution also scales out to up to 2.5 million IOPS during random reads. The FlashSystem V9000 ships in a 6U enclosure.

The software that comes with the FlashSystem V9000 provides realtime compression, dynamic tiering, thin provisioning, snapshots, cloning, replication, data copy services and high-availability configurations, Kuhn said. The software also brings cost of the solution to under $2 per GB over five years of use, he said.

IBM also unveiled the FlashSystem 900, a 2U all-flash array that scales to up to 105.5 GBs of capacity and 1.1 million IOPS during random reads.

The IBM FlashSystem V9000 and IBM FlashSystem 900 both feature IBM's FlashCore technology, which offers hardware-accelerated I/O, said IBM Fellow Andrew Walls during the press conference.

"There's not a line of code in the [read] path," Walls said.

They both also feature IBM MicroLatency modules, which are IBM-designed, high-performance, high-density plug-in flash storage modules, as well as advanced flash management that takes the issue of endurance out of the equation, Walls said.

"You simply run it, and you don't worry about it," he said.

The IBM FlashSystem V9000 will compete very well with offerings from such companies as Pure Storage, Morin said.

"IBM has been doing a great progression in terms of flash storage development," he said. "It's been taking evolutionary steps. It can be hard to compete in this market. But IBM is differentiating its offering with leading features. I'm bullish."

Tom Spring contributed to this story.