With launch of the second iteration of storage virtualisation platform ViPR, and details of its Project Liberty also emerging, EMC attempted to further its software defined storage agenda at its annual customer conference in Las Vegas last week.

ViPR is a central component of EMC’s attempts to position itself as interest around software-based storage provisioning increases. The software system is aimed at providing a virtualised platform across silos of enterprise storage, providing the foundation for businesses to manage large volumes of data and support new web-scale applications.

“Software defined storage is a very disruptive technology, and it is going to become increasingly more disruptive over the next three to five years as it is more broadly adopted by enterprises and storage providers,” said Roger Cox, Gartner research vice president, data centre convergence,

EMC’s approach to software defined storage is a journey, recognising that we are going to transition from our traditional storage systems that we have today, to storage infrastructures where the software is completely separated from the hardware.” 

ViPR 2.0 update

A number of new features were announced for the platform at EMC World 2014 to extend third party support, enable geo-replication and introduce block storage to the object and Hadoop Distributed File System (HDFS) storage already available.

These go some way to improving functionality of the software-defined platform, according to Forrester senior analyst Henry Baltazar.  

“There were a lot of gaps when ViPR was first launched. For example, it only had object storage as the data service. But some of some of these gaps have now been filled,” he said. 

“Also ViPR was really limited to localised environments with the first iteration. Now they introduced the concept of having replication and federation so you can have an environment that spreads to multiple data centres.”

However, there are challenges that need to be overcome to achieve the full benefits of software-defined storage. 

For example, although EMC has added access to HP, IBM and Dell systems through OpenStack Cinder integration, a lack of comprehensive native support for third-party arrays is a problem that still needs to be fully addressed, with NetApp and Hitachi the only competing storage vendors to agree support.

Cox adds that customers should also be aware that, while EMC’s claims ViPR offers better choice at an infrastructure level, there are also concerns they could merely see themselves being tied in at the software management layer.

“You never get rid of lock-in. What software defined storage does for you is eliminate hardware as the lock-in, but at the software level you are still locked in to that particular product,” he said.

Baltazar added that EMC needs to be open to other storage suppliers in order to combat this going forward.

“I would like to see broader support of other environments. This includes support of other software storage. There are vendors that do object storage like Scality and Red Hat, which just bought [Ceph open source storage platform] Inktank. If it going to be a true software defined storage platform for everybody I would like to see support for other environments as that increases.”

Customer uptake

Although not the first to use the software defined storage tag, EMC launched its first iteration of ViPR last year, and head of advanced software, Amitabh Srivastava claims it has now been rolled out by a number of large enterprise customers, many of which are using the platform in production. 

Actual uptake is unclear, however, with the vendor unwilling to divulge specific user levels since to ComputerworldUK. In its recent financial results ViPR sales were incorporated into the ‘emerging technology’ bracket, which also included the fast-growing XtremIO flash arrays.

One EMC customer, UK mobile operator and service provider Vodafone, said that ViPR will allow its business to gain greater value as it implements wider software defined data centre technologies across the organistion.

“Historically all of the virtualisation focus has been on virtualising the server. Fundamentally that is the easy bit and if you stop there and you don’t focus on the other components such as networking, you really struggle to unlock the value of the software defined data centre, because you can’t transition something transition from a private cloud to a shared environment because you are still anchored to the physical infrastructure," said Tom Stockwell, head of hosting product management for Vodafone cloud and hosting services.

“Another good thing for us is the way ViPR allows us to transition from a number of platforms we have invested in the past few years and by layering on top of these existing investments start to get that benefit quicker.”

Future plans for software defined storage

Aside from ViPR, the EMC is expanding its portfolio of software defined platforms. This includes VMware’s vSAN system, as well as Project Liberty, a development project which could see the release of a software version of its mid-range VNX array, allowing its functionality to be placed onto commodity systems. Although not a fully fledged product at this point, it potentially adds to the scope of software defined storage technologies used by EMC. 

According to Gartner's Cox, like a number of IT companies, EMC aims to move away from supplying its various hardware systems, and be able to sell different software packages to run on commodity systems. 

“The launch of Project Liberty shows EMC recognises that the world is changing, and they are going to take the steps necessary to keep EMC at the forefront of that transition to a software-only infrastructure.”