ITG Executive Summary

June 2013

The rate of change in the storage world continues to accelerate. Adoption of new technologies such as virtualization and flash (semiconductor) memory has become pervasive. High-end disk arrays have not been an exception to these trends. There has been a large-scale shift toward use of hybrid, multi-tier architectures that employ flash technology and conventional hard disk drives (HDDs) to boost performance and reduce media costs. The two platforms that are the focus of this report – IBM System Storage DS8870 and EMC Symmetrix VMAX 40K – have been at the forefront of this shift. Both combine advanced tiering with established strengths in stability, availability and recoverability that are mandated for core business-critical systems. There are, however, differences in pricing practices and technology strategies that affect comparative costs. In comparisons presented in this report, three-year costs for use of DS8870 systems with IBM Easy Tier average 36 percent less than for VMAX 40K systems with EMC Fully Automated Storage Tiering for Virtual Pools (FAST VP). Figure 1 summarizes these results.

IBM  System   Storage  DS8870   EMC  Symmetrix   VMAX  40K   $  Millions   Hardware   SoBware  



SoBware  support  

Data  center  

Figure 1: Average Three-year Costs for Use of Hybrid IBM DS8870 Systems and EMC VMAX 40K

Comparisons – which reflect the capabilities of VMAX 40K and DS8870 systems as enhanced by EMC and IBM in May and June 2013 respectively – are for composite profiles of high-end disk array installations in large financial services, manufacturing and IT services companies. For calculation purposes, DS8870 and VMAX 40K systems were equipped with 2.5-inch solid state drives (SSD), high-performance serial attached SCSI (SAS) drives and Near-Line SAS (NL-SAS) drives in equivalent multi-tier configurations. Software stacks include operating systems, along with tiering, point-in-time copy, multipathing and real-time replication and recovery tools. Costs include hardware acquisition, software licenses and (for VMAX 40K systems) support, and data center costs including occupancy, energy and infrastructure equipment. Hardware and software costs are based on “street” (i.e., discounted) prices. Hardware maintenance is not included, as EMC offers a standard three-year 24x7 warranty, and DS8870 calculations are based on IBM warranty options providing comparable coverage.
This ITG EXECUTIVE SUMMARY is based upon results and methodology contained in a Management Brief released by the International Technology Group. 1

DS8870 software support costs are not broken out separately as license costs are calculated based on three-year, 24x7 IBM software warranty options. The basis of these calculations, along with details of installations, configurations and pricing methodology, may be found in the Detailed Data section of this report. Cost breakdowns for installations and platforms are also presented in this section.

Cost Factors
Lower three-year costs for DS8870 systems are due primarily to differences between EMC and IBM pricing practices. This is particularly the case in two areas: 1. Upgrade pricing. Although EMC may price aggressively for initial purchases, the company normally charges more for subsequent upgrades. For example, list prices for disk units are routinely 40 percent higher for upgrades, and surcharges extend to a wide range of other hardware and software components. IBM pricing tends to be more consistent over time, with the result that cost comparisons over three-year or longer periods favor DS8870 systems. This is particularly the case when organizations experience high levels of storage growth. 2. Software offerings. While IBM includes one- to four-year warranties in licenses for key software products, EMC charges separately – up to 18 percent of initial license fees per year – for support. Even allowing for higher IBM fees for multiyear warranty options, overall EMC costs were significantly higher. Combined three-year license and support costs for DS8870 systems averaged 48 percent lower than for VMAX 40K equivalents. EMC offers a 90-day warranty for VMAX software. This, however, applies only to media defects. As these rarely occur in practice, no allowance is made for this period in calculations presented in this report. In addition, EMC charges for multipathing (PowerPath) and tiering (FAST VP) software. The IBM equivalents, Subsystem Device Driver (SDD) and Easy Tier, are no-charge offerings. PowerPath is charged on a per server basis. In installations with large numbers of servers, it may add substantially to overall software costs. Although VMAX 40K and DS8870 hardware designs share numerous features, there are a number of differences that also contribute to lower costs for the latter. VMAX systems tend, for example, to be less efficient in their use of cache, and costs are further increased by EMC’s use of fully mirrored configurations; e.g., although VMAX 40K systems can support up to 256 GB of cache, only 128 GB of this is usable. Mirroring is a legacy feature from the earlier EMC DMX architecture. It does not improve availability compared to DS8870 systems. DS8870 systems employ IBM POWER-based symmetric multiprocessing (SMP) technology to utilize processor resources more efficiently than VMAX 40K equivalents; greater configuration flexibility may reduce costs for I/O and host interfaces; and higher overall capacity utilization and latest-generation direct current uninterruptible power supplies (DC-UPS) translate into lower energy consumption. Users also report better price/performance levels for DS8870 than for VMAX 40K systems, and DS8870 systems have shown industry-leading results in Storage Performance Council (SPC) tests. EMC does not allow SPC benchmarks to be performed on VMAX systems.
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Although EMC FAST VP and IBM Easy Tier provide generally similar capabilities, their implementation and operation reflect different vendor priorities. EMC emphasizes the role of administrators in defining and managing storage tiers, while IBM relies more heavily on automation. FAST VP is designed to run continuously, with data movement processes occurring on a 24x7 basis. In practice, however, users have found that the EMC approach causes operational problems. Continuous data collection and movement tend to generate system overhead that impairs production performance. Equally, few organizations seem prepared to invest the administrative time and effort that would be necessary to migrate data across tiers multiple times per day, on an application-by-application basis. As a result, FAST VP processes are typically executed in batch mode during off-peak periods. In comparison, Easy Tier migrates small increments of data every five minutes. Performance impacts are minimal. Administrative processes are also a great deal simpler. FAST VP requires that administrators set a wide range of parameters manually, and define policies on an application-by-application basis. According to IBM, the Easy Tier approach responds closely to requirements expressed by customers. Easy Tier automation strengths are reinforced by enhancements in the latest Release 7.1. For example, a new Easy Tier Application Feature provides an application programming interface (API) enabling developers to build data placement intelligence into applications. The gap between EMC and IBM approaches is clearly widening over time. While IBM sees management of storage tiering as increasingly driven by applications, EMC favors a more conventional approach in which administrators in general – and FAST VP administrators in particular – play the central role.

Flash Technology
During 2012 and 2013, flash technology has reached a “tipping point” in market momentum. Declining prices for flash devices, growing user adoption and the expanding product portfolios of major vendors and start-ups are accelerating market penetration. Unsurprisingly, flash technology has come to play a major role in the strategies of EMC and IBM. Both companies have promoted use of flash devices on their primary high-end and midrange disk arrays, and IBM has also offered a variety of flash options on its server platforms. Strategies in other areas have also been similar, and have included the following: • New all-flash arrays. EMC has also introduced a new all-flash platform from an Israeli start-up, XtremIO, which the company acquired in May 2012. The XtremIO product line was announced at the EMC Open World trade show in May 2013, but is not yet generally available. IBM acquired the largest vendor of all-flash arrays, Texas Memory Systems, in October 2012. The company currently offers the FlashSystem line of arrays, which are based on the Texas Memory Systems RamSan platform. New models were introduced in May 2013. Although both companies plan to market all-flash systems for mainstream commercial applications, demand for these is expected to remain distinct from high-end business-critical disk arrays. Stability and resiliency issues, as well as the need to maintain compatibility with existing software investments, will continue to differentiate the latter well into the future.

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Distributed tiering. Both companies have moved to integrate their disk array-based tiering solutions with server I/O caching – i.e., caching most frequently accessed data at the server level rather than in storage systems. The basic logic of this approach is that end-to-end performance may be significantly improved by minimizing storage area network (SAN) and host I/O latencies. EMC began to move in this direction with its line of VFCache server I/O cards introduced in February 2012. These do not, however, appear to have gained much market traction – users have typically preferred more versatile cards offered by Fusion-io, Violin Memory and others. In March 2013, EMC replaced VFCache hardware with new XtremSF cards, and rebranded VFCache software as XtremSW. It is, according to the company, planned to extend FAST VP management services to these. IBM’s approach is built around Easy Tier Server, a new software product that extends Easy Tier management services to SSDs mounted in intelligent Ultra SSD I/O Drawers attached to IBM Power Systems. It is expected that support will later be extended to other platforms.

Flash technology and distributed tiering also, according to EMC, play a major role in the company’s recently announced ViPR strategy. ViPR, which EMC claims to be “the world’s first software-defined storage platform,” is a generalized design for management of heterogeneous storage resources using object-based as well as conventional block and file techniques. ViPR (which is not an acronym) appears to be at an early stage of development. Although some components will, according to EMC, become available in 2013, the company’s long-term implementation timetable is unclear. Few details have been provided as to how VMAX and FAST VP will be integrated. More substantively, IBM recently announced a Flash Ahead Initiative that will include a more than $1 billion investment its flash memory products over an undisclosed period. Part of this investment will go into product-related research and development. The initiative will also, however, include formation of 12 Centers of Competency worldwide that will work with customers and independent software vendors to optimize their applications for use with IBM flash offerings. This aspect of the initiative obviously dovetails with the IBM emphasis on building management intelligence into applications. EMC is more wedded to conventional storage concepts and administrative practices. It is perhaps too early to predict the outcome of these strategies. But at least the shape of the race is becoming clearer.

Certain conclusions may be drawn. One is that, although flash technology will play an increasingly significant role in high-end disk arrays, its adoption will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. For at least the next three to five years, it can be expected that EMC and IBM competition in this space will be primarily between hybrid arrays employing FAST VP and Easy Tier respectively. A second is that, in this time, a great deal of money may be saved by deploying IBM DS8870 rather than VMAX 40K systems. Unless, that is, EMC radically changes its pricing practices. Readers may judge the probability of that outcome themselves.

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Additional Information
This ITG Executive Summary is based upon results and methodology contained in a Management Brief released by the International Technology Group. For copies of this Management Brief, please email requests to

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Copyright © 2013 by the International Technology Group. All rights reserved. Material, in whole or part, contained in this document may not be reproduced or distributed by any means or in any form, including original, without the prior written permission of the International Technology Group (ITG). Information has been obtained from sources assumed to be reliable and reflects conclusions at the time. This document was developed with International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) funding. Although the document may utilize publicly available material from various sources, including IBM, it does not necessarily reflect the positions of such sources on the issues addressed in this document. Material contained and conclusions presented in this document are subject to change without notice. All warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of such material are disclaimed. There shall be no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the material contained in this document or for interpretations thereof. Trademarks included in this document are the property of their respective owners.

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