Lenovo's Storage Strategy: Plotting A Path To Data Center Relevance

Tearing A Page From Dell's Playbook

Lenovo, a Chinese PC vendor that rocketed to worldwide IT fame with its 2004 purchase of IBM's PC business, followed by its early 2014 acquisition of IBM's x86-based server business, really wants to get into the data center. But a low-margin PC and server business does not a data center player make.

Dell figured that out about 15 years ago when it first entered in a deal to resell EMC storage, gaining its first foothold in the enterprise. That reseller agreement eventually died as Dell made a few acquisitions, but with Dell's acquisition this year of EMC, the company is now a top provider of data center infrastructure solutions.

Lenovo knows it needs to have a viable storage strategy to make its mark in the data center, and it's already on the way with a new partnership to bring its servers together with storage arrays from all-flash storage and hybrid storage vendor Nimble Storage.

But this is only a first step. Lenovo's storage plans are much larger. To find out, turn the page.

The Nimble Storage Partnership

Lenovo and all-flash and hybrid flash storage vendor Nimble Storage are partnering on a new converged infrastructure solution called ThinkAgile, Lenovo's new brand for converged infrastructure. The solution includes Lenovo servers, Nimble storage, and Lenovo network technology it acquired with the IBM x86-based server business acquisition. The different parts are tied together with Lenovo's XClarity infrastructure management software.

The ThinkAgile offering will be pre-integrated by Lenovo in its own facilities and sold by Lenovo's channel partners, but not by Nimble Storage channel partners.

What A Long, Strange Trip It's Been. …

The new Nimble Storage relationship is not Lenovo's first attempt to move into the data center beyond ex-IBM servers and networking.

Lenovo's march into the data center started with its 2012 strategic agreement with EMC to jointly develop VSPEX reference architectures for converged infrastructure. Lenovo also OEMed storage technology from EMC's Iomega business. That march expanded with Lenovo's 2014 acquisition of IBM's x86-based server business. However, the Lenovo-EMC relationship effectively ended even before the purchase of EMC by Lenovo arch-rival Dell.

Lenovo And Pivot3

Lenovo has sought to beef up its storage capabilities with a series of technology partnerships following its split with EMC.

The company in July of 2015 unveiled a partnership with Austin, Tex.-based Pivot3 and distributor Arrow ECS under which Arrow ECS would build hyper-converged appliances combining Lenovo ThinkServer RD650 servers with Pivot3's vSTAC OS software.

The resulting Hyper-Converged ONE appliance was sold via Arrow ECS.

Lenovo And StorMagic

Lenovo in August of 2015 introduced a new portfolio of turnkey storage solutions starting at $5,000 in partnership with Lake Mary, Fla.-based software-defined storage firm StorMagic.

The current iteration of that partnership combines different Lenovo System x server models with the SvSAN virtualized SAN software from StorMagic into a series of hyper-converged infrastructure solutions targeting small businesses.

Lenovo And SimpliVity

Lenovo and SimpliVity in August of 2015 signed a deal under which Lenovo could offer SimpliVity's software-defined hyper-converged infrastructure on Lenovo System X 3650 servers. The two firms split go-to-market and marketing responsibilities.

The system combines SimpliVity's OmniStack software stack with Lenovo System x3650 M5 servers. Each server can handle up to 12 core data center functions including the hypervisor, compute, storage, network switching, backup, replication, cloud gateway, caching, WAN optimization, real-time deduplication, and more.

Lenovo And Nutanix

Lenovo and Nutanix in November of 2015 unveiled a strategic partnership under which they jointly build and sell hyper-converged infrastructure appliances. The line was enhanced this past May.

Under the partnership, Lenovo installs Nutanix's software on its System x servers at the factory, and Lenovo's direct sales team and channel partners sell co-branded hyper-converged appliances. The five models in the Lenovo HX Series appliances are optimized for a variety of SMB and enterprise requirements. The family includes the HX 1000 series for remote and branch offices, the HX 2000 series for SMBs, the HX 3000 series for compute-heavy environments, the HX 5000 series for storage-heavy environments, and the HX 7000 series for high-performance requirements.

Lenovo And Cloudian

Software-defined storage vendor Cloudian is partnering with Lenovo to bring an object storage appliance compatible with Amazon’s S3 public cloud to the channel.

San Mateo, Calif.-based Cloudian and Lenovo in June unveiled an appliance combining Cloudian's HyperStore software with a Lenovo Storage DX8200C system, touting it as a simple way to bring object storage with unlimited scalability and multi-tenancy to the Amazon S3 cloud.

The solution ships preconfigured, making it a rack-ready system targeting big data applications, Cloudian said.

Lenovo StorSelect Program

June also saw Lenovo launch a software-defined storage appliance program called StorSelect. Under the program, Lenovo is teamed with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Nexenta Systems and Cloudian to offer software-defined storage software on turnkey appliances built on Lenovo hardware. The first appliances being sold under the program are the Lenovo DX8200N, which integrates Nexenta software for unified file and block storage for scale-up deployments in either all-flash, hybrid or traditional drive flavors, and the DX8200C, which uses object-based storage software from Cloudian for large, scale-out deployments.

Still To Come

Lenovo is planning to start shipping the ThinkAgile converged infrastructure starting October 28.

The ThinkAgile relationship with Nimble Storage is just part of an overall storage offensive Lenovo is on, said Radhika Krishnan, general manager of modern IT at Lenovo and - until seven months ago - the vice president of marketing, solutions, and alliances at Nimble Storage.

The company is also planning to deliver more flash storage systems, with dedicated Lenovo-branded storage products based on Nimble Storage technology expected to come to market starting in the first half of 2017.

Plans To Expand Hyper-Converged Infrastructure Solutions

Lenovo in September used the Microsoft Ignite conference to introduce Lenovo Cloud Configuration for Microsoft Storage Spaces Direct, which lets customers develop an on-premises variant of Azure that reaches out to the Azure cloud, Krishnan said. That offering will get the ThinkAgile brand name, she said.

Lenovo has plans to work with Nutanix to develop a new hyper-converged rack solution similar to Dell EMC VxRack by year-end, Krishnan said. Based on Nutanix software, it will be a 42U rack with up to 40 1U or 20 2U Lenovo server nodes in a single cluster with Lenovo top-of-rack networking.

Lenovo expects next year to introduce a separate rack-based hyper-converged infrastructure system based on the OpenStack cloud and Ceph software-defined storage for the China market, which Krishnan said is more open to open source.

Lenovo also offers VSAN-ready nodes and over time will work with VMware on its software-defined data center strategy, she said.

Still Work To Do To Convince The Channel

A couple of Lenovo channel partners, for now, feel that the vendor still has a lot of work to do to be a serious player in the data center business.

One Lenovo partner, who requested anonymity, said Lenovo's new ThinkAgile converged infrastructure offering with Nimble Storage is probably better for Nimble Storage than it is for Lenovo.

"Lenovo's channel strategy is still focused on a volume play, and not a value play," the solution provider told CRN. "We sell Lenovo when customers ask for it. But we actually sell what customers demand. When compared to what other vendors have, especially Dell, Lenovo is still seen as a me-too server vendor."

And More Work To Do To Convince The Channel

Another Lenovo channel partner, who also preferred to remain anonymous, said the ThinkAgile offering is an interesting play.

"I see Nimble Storage gain traction in the market," the solution provider told CRN. "But I don't know that this combination is the right answer."

Lenovo needs a converged infrastructure play because the tier-one vendors like Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Cisco have one, and it is important for second-tier vendors to get a piece of the action, the solution provider said.

"We sell relatively little Lenovo," the solution provider said. "But I'm not sure the Nimble Storage play will change our direction, or Lenovo's direction."