Partners: Despite Positioning, EMC's libStorage Won't Conflict With VMware Container Strategy

With its new open-source libStorage storage orchestration for containers, EMC is making an effort to solve one of the nagging challenges facing the burgeoning market for Linux containers.

The libStorage solution may also be a move to solidify EMC's relevance in a market where VMware's presence may be in danger of eroding, according to Geoff Woollacott, senior analyst at TBR Inc.

While solution providers say there isn't obvious friction between EMC libStorage and VMware's container strategy, EMC is certainly covering its bases in order to capitalize on the growing container market regardless of whether VMware's more mature container strategy finds success, Woollacott says.

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"VMware gets to compete on their own merits," Woollacott said. "If they win, EMC has solutions. If VMware doesn't win, EMC has solutions."

Josh Bernstein, vice president of technical strategies in EMC's emerging technologies division, argued that libStorage and VMware are more complementary than competitive.

"I don't think it's competitive," Bernstein said. "I think it's an enhancement. VMware has a fairly mature container platform on its own. We hope VMware and their container platform will adopt libStorage in the same way others will. With [EMC's] relationship with VMware, we can move faster with them than with other companies."

Still, VMware's ability to compete in the small-but-growing container market is being called into question. For example, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman recently took a jab at longtime partner VMware, suggesting the rise of containers would eventually make the virtualization software vendor irrelevant.

VMware's container strategy, including its year-old Project Photon and Project Lightwave, involves running containers inside virtual machines while providing developers with open-source tools to build cloud-native apps.

However, containers don't need the underlying operating systems required by virtual machines, and can run more apps per server than virtual machines. Container technology is gaining attention in the cloud-focused market because it allows developers to create apps and move them from testing to production regardless of infrastructure, and without changing their code.

EMC libStorage is trying to solve one of the key problems with container technology -- namely, that each container platform with its accompanying microservices is unique, meaning several container platforms can run in a given environment, each with its own language, forcing users to work in strict silos. The libStorage solution establishes a single storage language and a single method of support for all container platforms.

"All storage providers are equal if they adhere to the API," Bernstein said. "We're trying to solve this problem for the industry. It's a first attempt. We hope our customers would only have EMC storage, but they have a ton. By EMC going to market with this standard, we can force our competitors to provide functionality and help the customer. This is a big move."

Solution providers say that while the apps of the future will be written to containers, the market is too young and the opportunities for profits too uncertain to start placing bets with individual vendors.

"It's picking up steam, but it's extremely small," said Scott Miller, data center director at World Wide Technology, a St. Louis-based EMC solution provider. "It's where a lot of the future apps are being written to, but if you talk to a Fortune 1000 company, they might have 3,000 or 4,000 apps, and maybe five of them are written to containers."

"I don't really see containers and VMware being an either-or play," Miller said. "You can write an app in a container, or it can run inside a hypervisor. Developers are developing the next platforms, the next applications, and there's good opportunity there, so it makes sense to develop a solution like [libStorage], but I wouldn't see it as too much of a threat to VMware per se. It would be a long time before a company would move away from VMware."

Michael Thomaschewski, director of infrastructure at Long View Systems, a Calgary, Alberta-based EMC solution provider, agreed that libStorage isn't necessarily competitive with VMware, pointing out that "from a strategy perspective, customers can have consistency with libStorage across all platforms. It's a smart move on EMC's part, and a definite differentiator in the market."

Solution providers are concerned, though, about when the container market will begin bearing fruit.

"I don't see the monetization strategy," Miller said. "There's a lot of people buying hardware for Platform 2 rather than [Infrastructure-as-a-Service], so it's not clear to me. I can sell you services, but generally the channel is trying to sell something and services."

According to Michael Pearson, president of Elk Grove, Calif.-based solution provider DSA Technologies: "I see this come up in [customer] conversation and then see the client deployment simply like every other high-performance storage deployment. I believe the true number of companies or people using DevOps, open-source, platform-agnostic -- choose the hot-topic word -- is very limited to those with tremendous need or resources. The vast majority will use standard products in standard ways, or find a consulting firm to do the heavy lifting for them."

But Bernstein said libStorage offers channel partners an opportunity to break into a hot market today.

"Our channel is able to offer very integrated, highly customized solutions that are customer-specific," Bernstein said. "The challenge is when you combine EMC solutions with other hardware, interoperability has been a problem for them. It's expensive, and their margins are suffering, and it's a hard thing to support."

"LibStorage is standardized protocol," Bernstein continued. "Combine any other product with a libStorage product, and it should work easier for you. It gives partners the freedom and flexibility to choose the right product, and it'll be supported. If EMC is leading the way here, we hope that when channel partners are building out open-source clouds, EMC says our storage is libStorage compatible, but for them it gives them the confidence that what they're building is going to work. That's the key go-to-market strategy we have. People that buy your open source software value interoperability above anything else. That's how the channel is going to make money."

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