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EMC Bets Big on Flash Storage

EMC came early to enterprise flash storage, shipping its first product in 2008, and it's still increasing its investment in the hot technology. More than half its new R&D expenditures are going into flash, and just nine months ago the company formed a division dedicated to it. EMC sees a long-term move toward all-flash data centers and wants to make sure its efforts have enough "oxygen" within the company, says Zahid Hussain, SVP and general manager of EMC's Flash Products Division.

  • Company: EMC Corp.
  • Headquarters: Hopkinton, Mass.
  • Employees: 60,000
  • 2012 Revenue: $21.7 billion
  • CEO: Joe Tucci
  • What They Do:Ã'Â EMC supplies a wide range of storage, big data and cloud computing products, as well as Asecurity offerings through its RSA division. It is the majority owner of VMware, and last year the company acquired agile Adevelopment service provider Pivotal Labs.

Last year, EMC went beyond hybrid flash-and-disk arrays by acquiring XtremIO, a startup developing all-flash systems. The resulting products are set to ship later this year. The company has also started to pursue server-based flash, which gives applications the closest and fastest access to data. With its ScaleIO acquisition earlier this year, EMC plans to let enterprises pool flash assets from many servers into a primary storage tier.

The Changing Face of Enterprise Storage

EMC probably has the broadest flash lineup of the established storage vendors, including IBM, Hewlett-Packard, NetApp and Dell, says Taneja Group analyst Arun Taneja. But data storage is starting to merge with computing and other areas where EMC hasn't been a major player. When flash resides in servers and caches in various parts of the data center, coordinating all the pieces requires computer expertise, he says.

"Storage guys have to understand applications all the way up, and storage guys have to understand what's happening in VMware or Hyper-V, because if they don't, then the applications just suffer," Taneja says. "All the boundaries are gone."

The danger to EMC is that vendors such as IBM or HP could use their data center presence to gain the upper hand, Taneja says.

Another hazard is that EMC's server-based caching could eat into the company's own sales of fast, high-end spinning disks, says analyst Mark Peters of Enterprise Strategy Group. But EMC isn't afraid of this, he says. "I don't know whether they embrace change, but they certainly manage it very well," Peters says.

A Strong Player in a Flash

EMC's new technology and long track record as an IT vendor could combine to make it a strong player in the flash storage market.

An IT manager in the engineering department of a large university says EMC's XtremIO all-flash array boosted the performance of a desktop virtualization system at the school.

The engineering department gives students virtual desktops in its classrooms to run complex applications such as AutoCad and Matlab. As one class leaves and the next arrives and logs in, the storage system is heavily taxed, the IT manager says. Meanwhile, virtual desktops are catching on across the department.

"We needed to invest in a technology that was going to give us more breathing room in terms of dealing with growth," says the IT manager, who asked not to be named.

In its first week of use, the XtremIO array seemed to improve performance significantly, the IT manager says. He saw Matlab starting up in 15 seconds, compared with a minute or more without the flash array.

The customer also considered a startup's product, but EMC got the nod because it's a known quantity as an IT vendor.

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