November 11, 2009

EMC, the Acadian Accomplices, and the Private Cloud

Once again I find myself the lucky recipient of the honorable identifier, AA 197 seat 22D, and as such have a few hours to kill in a rather austere low humidity environment. Thank goodness for my latest iDevice with its requisite collection of jazz, news podcasts, and noise cancelling headphones.

I have spent the last two days at EMC’s Analyst Event in the Boston ‘burbs; it was an interesting study in just how much the Hopkinton Storage Master has transformed over the past few years. A scant decade ago, EMC was easily summed as up Symmetrix plus the other stuff the company sold. High performance storage was the game, and in the booming best-of-breed focused 1990s, it wasn’t a bad fit. Of course the 1990s eventually ended with a resounding collapse of the marketplace that gave us rampant consolidation and retrenchment by much of the IT industry.

It was during these shaky years following that the focus and look of IT began to change as the distinction between servers, storage, and networking began to blur considerably. Not all that long ago the notion of the storage server was an oddity but IBM, then HP, and finally Sun began to embrace this blurring of purpose into their product lines. Yet today, this is an almost antiquated view given the transformative impact that virtualization has had across the board in IT. Perhaps some did not understand why in 1993 EMC, a storage company, would buy VMware, but today, this prescient purchase was an obvious underpinning for the transformation of EMC into something much more than that of a storage vendor.

Today’s buzz is all about cloud computing. At first blush one would expect that server and networking vendors would be the primary proponents, and for the most part they have been, but perhaps counter intuitively it is the far reaching embrace afforded the cloud approach by EMC that is most interesting. The recent announcement of the Acadia joint venture with Cisco, VMware, and Intel illustrates the degree to which EMC has embraced an internally controlled cloud as the future of enterprise IT. It was enlightening to hear the collective strategy of EMC and its Acadian Accomplices during the past two days; so much so that the relative lack of product announcements typical for such events was hardly noticed.

While many of the specifics discussed fall under NDA and thus are not to be repeated without the secret handshake, it was very clear from the event that EMC has focused its vision on delivering a new abstracted approach to the datacenter it has dubbed the Private Cloud. It is also apparent that this transformative message is more than buzzword saber rattling in that it not only seeks to depose the traditional silos of IT procurement (and the vendor community aligned therewith) but simultaneously cleverly engages the customer about what their business is seeking to do as opposed to how they do it. Who’d a thunk a “storage” company would transform itself into a thought leader for the datacenter with a vision that ultimately will obscure the mechanics of storage from not only the end user but most everyone in IT?

Readers know that I have taken issue with much of the “cloud dusting” in IT marketing as of late especially with respect to the notion of public clouds taking over IT as we know it in the very near future. However, much like in the early days of public Internet, the opportunity more rationally lies within the enterprise. The Private Cloud as articulated by EMC et al seeks to extend virtualization to its logical conclusion where all IT resources are dynamically provisioned from a pool of well described and understood resources under the control of the enterprise. It also seeks to transform a capital expenditure mindset into operational expenditure mentality which can also align more closely with servicing business objectives as opposed to technological deployment.

OK, this sounds wonderful, if not too good to be true; but enough gushing at the potential, let’s return to the ever present practical reality. Embracing the Private Cloud will take much more than technology, it will take behavioral change – the toughest product there is to sell. In a legal environment where compliance and best practices can install a sense of dread if not fear into most any LOB professional, the sanctity of information control is paramount to corporate success. I would argue this need trumps any cost benefits that internal cloud scenarios may deliver.

But to its credit, this is where the other multitudes of software acquisitions made by EMC over the past few years come into play. Unlike the other major systems vendors, EMC has put a razor sharp edge on information management, not just the storage equipment, but the information being stored. With ILM in the early 2000s, followed by management with Documentum, and security through RSA, deduping, and several others, EMC began to drive storage from the perspective of the information and its business value as opposed to a collection of hardware. Add to this mix the notion and virtualization, and primordial ooze of datacenter wide virtualization and abstraction begins to form. This ooze is non-trivial in its impact on IT attitudes, and it is not easily created; in fact it could be argued that the Acadia venture would difficult for any other combination of vendors to replicate.

The combination of EMC, VMware, Cisco, and Intel notably lacks any traditional systems vendor and services bureau presence. (Yes, each has some services business, but not in the big integrator sense.) Perhaps this lack is what has enabled the Acadian Accomplices to take a differing approach to virtualization and clouds bereft of the temptation to simply rename existing solutions as “cloud” without offering a transformative approach that focus on the information (and indirectly the applications) first, and the physical considerations of server, storage, and networking second. For example, HP’s announced acquisition of 3Com should bolster their networking credentials, but its combination of server + storage + networking does not articulate the same vision as Acadia.

There are many, many specifics that need to be worked out, and the evolution to the datacenter building block that EMC is driving will be a long one. This is not a flick the switch and everything is instantly different kind of endeavor. However, it is one with the potential to fundamentally alter how we view the datacenter, virtualization, IT provisioning, and oh yeah, storage. This is a strong message about virtualization that embraces all aspects of IT, not just servers, and focuses ultimately on the value of information and its enabling power to the enterprise. This is pretty dang cool.