IBM Storage Makes Its Voice Heard

IBM Corporation has been ubiquitous in the data center for so long that it is easy to take it for granted. This is especially true of IBM Storage, who has struggled in the past with both execution and portfolio agility. Two years ago, IBM brought fresh leadership in to run its storage unit. Ed Walsh manages the storage business, and he has had a tremendous impact on the execution of that unit. Eric Herzog joined just before Walsh, leading IBM’s storage marketing organization.  Under this fresh leadership, IBM Storage has become an execution machine. It is delivering a very strong portfolio and aggressively and effectively telling its story. Taking IBM storage for granted is a mistake.

Today’s storage landscape is complex. Enterprises spread data between on-premises datacenters, remote offices, the internet of things (IoT), and a myriad of clouds. High-performance analytics and machine learning are placing new demands on IT resources throughout the data center. At the same time, the underlying storage technologies are rapidly evolving. Many technology companies can provide elements of a solution— Dell EMC and Hewlett Packard Enterprise each have strong portfolios that span a broad range of technologies. Smaller specialty players, such as Pure Storage and Nutanix, provide targeted solutions to solve hard problems with innovative technologies. IBM, however, stands with a small group of peers in its ability to deliver a single source end-to-end solution that bridges artificial intelligence, the corporate data center, and the cloud.

Executing a data-centric strategy

It’s easy for a large technology company to become mired in the breadth of its portfolio, the weight of its legacy offerings, and the integration pains that arise from acquisitions. While it can be understandably challenging, this doesn’t seem to be an issue troubling IBM as much as it plagues some of its competitors. IBM, under Ginni Rometty’s leadership, has been uniquely aggressive in shedding businesses that do not play to the core strategies of the corporation. Rometty and her team have also been very strategic in driving the acquisitions that IBM has pursued.

IBM is executing a data-centric strategy, meaning that IBM is focused on offering solutions that drive the intelligent placement and processing of its customer’s data.  IBM’s leadership talks publicly about how that strategy is comprised of cloud, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and quantum computing. In addition to these strategic initiatives, IBM maintains a strong infrastructure business of compute and storage solution. This is a natural consequence of IBM’s revenue-heavy legacy business, and how enterprise IT views cloud deployments today.

Enterprise IT has decided (for now) that their architectures exist between cloud and in-house data centers, with workloads placed where it makes the most business sense. It’s a hybrid-cloud world. These intersecting approaches bring along an unprecedented level of compute and data mobility, which in turn dramatically increase the complexity of managing an organization’s infrastructure and data. My colleague Patrick Moorhead recently wrote about this in his Forbes article “Data is Escaping the Data Center.” IBM’s cloud strategy bridges this gap.

A strategy’s ability to deliver value to an organization’s customers defines its success, with a return to its shareholders. In this regard, IBM has been successful, showing revenue growth in five of the last six quarters.

Buffet of storage options

Storage is the foundation of any data-centric strategy. IBM Storage offers a broad and competitive portfolio of products under its Spectrum brand. It boasts a range of solutions including NAS, storage virtualization, data protection, block storage, object storage, and a range of software-defined solutions. It’s important to note that IBM isn’t sitting still with its technology. It is evolving at a pace that feels faster than its nearest competitors and rapidly adding new capabilities to its portfolio.

IBM Storage asserted its relevance in all-flash arrays earlier this year with the announcement of the industry’s first mainstream NVMe over fabric (NVMe-oF) solution with the IBM FlashSystem 900. IBM is supporting NVMe-oF over InfiniBand interconnects first, but has indicated that other transports will be available later in the year. The trendlines we see all point to FC-over-NVMe as being the dominant solution moving forward, and I fully expect IBM to support that in the second half of this year. Other vendors have released new high-end NVMe-enabled all-flash arrays in the months since, with both Dell EMC and NetApp NTAP +1.5% proclaiming their solutions as “the world’s fastest.” It’s a tribute to IBM’s engineering excellence that the FlashSystem 900 is remarkably competitive against these new offerings. The overall performance differences are negligible.

Fast hardware is fun to read about, but the future of IT is really about software-defined capabilities. In this realm, IBM is pushing a myriad of solutions. Spectrum NAS and Spectrum SCALE provide NAS and scalable file services beyond the needs of most organizations. This month, IBM took the capabilities of Spectrum NAS and made them available in virtual environments. This provides the leverage needed for data center flexibility and consolidation.

IBM Storage Insights, also updated this month, brings powerful predictive analytics and reporting elements to the ability of IT to manage their IBM storage. IBM Storage Insights is a cloud-based solution that is freely available to their block-storage customers.  This sort of capability is fast becoming table stakes for enterprise manageability.   As it evolves, I wouldn’t be surprised to see IBM leverage some of its advanced AI capabilities from Watson into these sorts of offerings.

Beyond on-premises hardware and software-defined capabilities, cloud integration has become a required capability for any credible IT solution provider. IBM has released its Spectrum Virtualize offering to manage storage in the cloud. Beyond IBM Storage, IBM Cloud is a massive focus of IBM as a whole.

Ready to compete

IBM’s storage capabilities run broad and deep. This article has only touched on a few of its most recent and notable storage offerings.  Its capabilities continue to increase at an impressive pace, with nearly a dozen announcements just in the first half of this year. The storage market is more interesting in 2018 that it has been since the advent of Fibre Channel in the 1990’s.  New data architectures are being deployed, and exciting new technologies to support those architectures are emerging.  NVMe has taken the latency out of storage. SSDs are evolving into storage class memory (SCM).  Fabric computing, driven by NVMe-over-fabric, is close to becoming a reality.   Storage arrays are morphing into converged systems and converged systems morphing into composable infrastructure and hybrid-cloud.

The amount of innovation happening right now is dizzying. IBM, with its half-century legacy of delivering data processing capabilities into the enterprise, is surprisingly well-poised to leverage the disruptive innovation happening in the storage world.  IBM is staged to deliver storage technologies to support and drive the evolution into a data-centric world, where data arrives with a volume and velocity unmatched in the history of information technology. IBM isn’t alone in this market, with Dell EMC and Hewlett Packard Enterprise fighting hard to deliver solutions to the common set of problems that IT faces. These companies are equals, though equals with slightly different ideas about how to deliver the future. Competition benefits IT, which can only lead to good things for the enterprise.