EMC: Why it's becoming all about the software

How storage vendor EMC is building a business focused around software as margins on storage hardware decline.
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

A decade or so ago, EMC was clearly a hardware company — selling enterprise storage appliances with its proprietary kit inside.

Today the company is less attached to shifting boxes it designed itself and is moving towards making software that runs on off-the-shelf components.

At EMC World 2013 it was all about the software, with the firm repeatedly reiterating its goal to virtualise and automate the datacentre regardless of the underlying CPUs, networking and storage — even if that storage comes from a traditional EMC competitor such as NetApp.

In theory the firm's software defined-storage platform ViPR, announced at the conference, embodies this work with anything attitude — with its not-yet fully-realised ambitions to create virtual storage pools using a mix of EMC, third party and commodity storage.

Does that mean that EMC on the path to becoming a software company?

Revenue growth in EMC's software-focused divisions — its Information Intelligence Group (IIG), VMware and RSA — outstripped other areas of its business in the first quarter of this year. VMware reported year-on-year growth of 12.8 percent, RSA 12.5 percent and IIG 7.1 percent — compared to 3.3 percent in its information storage division.

Software is also the primary focus of EMC's R&D, and has been for a long time, CEO Joe Tucci said at this year's EMC World. According to Tucci, EMC has fewer than 500 hardware engineers in its 12,000-strong engineering division.

"Our goal has always to been to use as much standard, commercial, off-the-shelf hardware as we can," he said. "Years ago [we were] making many ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits), today we're making one ASIC."

EMC appliances are increasingly based on off-the-shelf hardware. The next version of its flagship Symmetrix storage range will be built using 100 percent industry standard components, according to EMC's president of enterprise storage, Brian Gallagher.

EMC president and COO David Goulden said that with virtualisation playing such a central role in all EMC's product roadmap, increasingly the software became the product.

"We will increasingly expose all our functionality through software and sell it to customers as virtual machines," he said, citing EMC's decision to sell the RecoverPoint appliance as a virtual edition as just one example of this shift.

"But I don't foresee a day when we don't have that with a hardware alternative because when customers buy a storage array generally most want a single storage vendor to support that."

Where customers can choose between deploying EMC software on their own hardware or buying an EMC appliance, Goulden said customers would still frequently picked the appliance. He cited the object-based cloud storage platform Atmos, and said users more often chose to run it on the EMC-branded Hulk appliance rather than on a virtual machine on their own hardware.

"I do think as we open things up and give people a choice of going both ways, they may still want to come back to us for the hardware engineering, integration and our support system," he said.

Even if those customers did not choose to return to EMC, Goulden said the company had got the software and the margins were increasingly in the software.

There is another reason that EMC wants to move beyond selling its own boxes — it gives the company a foothold in what it is expecting will be a fast-growing new market built around big data applications. The amount of data flowing through these applications will mean they will typically run on lower cost commodity servers and storage rather than the more expensive vendor-branded appliances sold by the likes of EMC. An example is Facebook's petabyte-scale Hadoop cluster.

EMC is hoping to earn revenue from companies building "data lakes" to support these applications using its ViPR virtual storage platform, which EMC says will be able to manage commodity storage as part of virtual storage pools.

"There is still going to be a lot of growth in these object application data lakes, so if we can participate in these environments and the customer only buys software from us that's great, that's incremental to what we do today," Goulden said.

Clive Longbottom, service director with analyst house Quocirca, said EMC was creating an ecosystem of enterprise storage management products that guaranteed revenue as margins on storage hardware declined.

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