EMC's Project Liberty could free storage software from hardware

The company will demonstrate the emerging technology at EMC World next week

EMC will give users a peek at its progress toward software-defined storage next week at EMC World in Las Vegas, demonstrating a virtualized VNX array developed under a program called Project Liberty.

The demonstration will show software from the company's VNX hybrid array running separately from the array itself, pointing toward the ability to deploy EMC storage smarts on less specialized hardware. EMC hasn't given many details about Project Liberty, which will be showcased in a section of the show called Area 52, but it said it's going through evaluations with customers for various use cases.

"It's not a product, it's a project," said Jonathan Seigal, senior director of product marketing at EMC.

EMC is announcing Project Liberty on Wednesday in advance of EMC World, along with an entry-level version of its VNXe platform for midsized customers and new encryption technology for the VNX line. VNX is a series of hybrid flash and hard-drive arrays for enterprises.

Storage, like networking, is becoming more software-centered as enterprises look to standardized hardware and cloud services to power their data-center operations. The Project Liberty stack could run on commodity hardware, in a cloud or at a remote site, Seigal said. "It's really about giving our customers more options," he said. An initial use of Project Liberty might be to spin up virtualized instances of the VNX software on a platform separate from an array, for purposes such as testing and development, Seigal said.

The dominant enterprise storage vendor is hitching its future to software because it doesn't get as much advantage from maintaining several different hardware lines anymore, IDC analyst Ashish Nadkarni said. Ultimately, EMC is heading toward selling different software that can all run on the same standard hardware, including systems from other vendors, he believes. Yet it will probably take five years to reach that point, partly because the company still relies on hardware sales for much of its revenue, he said.

Project Liberty could help EMC to head off startups that sell virtualized gateways between storage systems on premises and cloud services off site, Gartner analyst Gene Ruth said. They include Panzura, Avere and Ctera Networks, Ruth said. A virtualized VNX stack could give enterprises a way to replicate a physical VNX array on site with a virtual one in a public cloud, giving enterprises more flexibility.

Brandon Robinson, network services director at ACES, a power management company, is looking at software-defined storage for potential use in a few years. A platform such as VMware's VSAN, or possibly the Project Liberty technology, wouldn't replace a whole hardware array but might be good for spot deployments of applications such as virtual desktops, he said.

"We wouldn't have to go out and buy a whole other array just to support this new workload," Robinson said. "We might be able to deploy the software and some off-the-shelf servers and hard drives."

Also on Wednesday, EMC is updating its VNXe line with the VNXe3200, designed for midsize enterprises and branch sites. It gets improvements that were introduced last year for the larger VNX platform. Those include new software to get more performance out of multicore Intel processors, the addition of Fibre Channel to the existing iSCSI and NAS (network-attached storage) protocols, and unified snapshot software that spans both block and file storage. The update delivers higher performance in the same footprint, including three times as many virtual machines, virtual desktops, Microsoft SQL transactions or Exchange mailboxes, Seigal said.

The VNXe3200 is still simpler to manage than the higher VNX line, with an eye toward sites with little storage expertise, Seigal said. It includes wizard-based SAN (storage-area network) and NAS setup that takes less than 15 minutes, he said.

The VNXe3200 will ship in the second quarter with prices starting under US$12,000.

EMC is also bringing its DARE (Data-At-Rest-Encryption) to the VNX line from the higher-end VMax series of arrays. This controller-based software can encrypt all the drives in an array, including both solid-state disks and spinning hard drives, at the drive level. Encryption at the drive level keeps the drive secure in case it's lost or stolen, Seigal said. DARE will be available as a software upgrade in the third quarter.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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