Storage old guard needs to have its cache and eat it too

Comment: Legacy external hardware-based storage suppliers need to adapt to technology threats to their businesses from three incomers – Infinidat, Pure Storage and VAST Data.

Update. Dell PowerMax gen 2 uses SCM for metadata. 6 July 2023.

Dell, Hitachi Vantara, HPE, Huawei, IBM and NetApp have proved adept at adopting or colonizing threats to their products. The NVMe all-flash array threat was dealt with by adopting NVMe technology and not a single standalone NVMe array startup has survived.

Public cloud storage has not killed on-premises external storage either. In fact legacy suppliers are colonizing it with their own file and block offerings as well as absorbing its pay-as-you-go business model for their on-premises users. They are all either looking at the public cloud as another place to run their storage software or tiering data to it. We can think of NetApp as leading this cloud colonization charge with Dell set on the same idea of having a storage environment span the on-premises and public cloud worlds.

Dell (APEX), HPE (GreenLake) and NetApp (Keystone) are all adopting public cloud-style business models, cloud management facilities as well as porting their storage array software to the public cloud.

Object storage has not limited file storage’s market share. File storage suppliers have added object storage technology to their product set and object storage suppliers have brought file interface layers to their products and life goes on as before.

HCI (server SAN) has not taken over the storage world. It has built its niche – witness VMware vSAN and Nutanix – and there it stays, co-existing with the external storage its evangelizing originators intended to replace.

But now the six main legacy storage players face three competitors – Infinidat, Pure Storage and VAST Data – and are not responding to them in technology adoption terms at all, with a single exception. 

Infinidat uses memory caching and clever cache pre-fetch technology to produce its highly performant InfiniBox arrays, either disk or SSD-based, and has built a great high-end array business that no one is directly responding to. None of the six legacy players have embraced Infinidat’s memory caching or pre-fetch software and Infinidat is basically left alone to grow its business, apart from the normal tactical per-bid competitive moves. 

Similarly for Pure and its technology. A mainstay is its use of proprietary Direct Flash Module (DFM) flash drives whereas the legacy players, with one exception, use off-the-shelf SSDs in their all-flash arrays. Hitachi Vantara used to have its own flash drive technology but reverted to commercial SSDs.

IBM has its own proprietary flash drives as well, FlashCore Modules, but these are not being used as Pure uses its DFMs to take IBM’s FlashSystem sales higher. We say that because IBM’s storage hardware market share is flat or falling and has been overtaken by Pure Storage.

Pure is aggressively growing its business with things like non-disruptive upgrades, the Evergreen business model and QLC flash adoption. Suppliers in the legacy six are adopting elements of this but the core differential, the DFMs, remain unaffected. And Pure promises to ramp up their density faster than off-the-shelf SSDs, thus strengthening its advantage. 

Like Infinidat, Pure’s core technology does not face much competition. IBM has the hardware base, the FlashCore Modules, to provide strong competition but does not seem to be doing so.

VAST Data has sprung onto the external array stage in the last few years and is growing faster than Pure did at the same stage in its development. It relies on its DASE (DisAggregated Shared Everything) architecture, single-tier QLC SSDs, and use of storage-class memory (SCM) to store metadata and buffer incoming writes, and is making huge inroads into the market.  DASE and SCM use have not been adopted by the legacy six and so VAST, like Infinidat and Pure, is left alone with its technology advantage to win many more bids than it loses.

Except by HPE, which is now OEMing VAST technology. 

Interestingly, both Pure and VAST have a disadvantage porting their array software to the public cloud. Neither AWS, Azure nor Google support Pure’s Direct Flash Module Drives so Pure’s software has to run on cloud instances using commodity hardware. Similarly, none of the cloud titans offer storage instances based on storage class memory, hence VAST software ported to the cloud could not use it.

The legacy players could adopt memory caching and pre-fetch algorithms for their existing arrays. It’s only software, but switching to proprietary flash drives would be a major change. It’s virtually impossible. Pure will surely not find that part of its technology advantage adopted by the legacy players, apart from IBM, which has it already. The other legacy players could adopt host-level drive management, though. Again, it’s software and hence more feasible.

VAST is in a similarly defensible position as having existing filers adopt a DASE architecture involves wholesale redesign. More likely is that the legacy vendors will explore development of their own DASE/SCM technologies and, if successful, bring out a new product line.

Such things can be done. Look at Quantum which has only recently introduced its Myriad unified file and object storage software running atop commodity all-flash hardware. 

Intuitively, we would expect Dell and Huawei to be among the first to do this.


A source close to Dell told me: “The 2nd gen Dell PowerMax uses SCM memory for metadata. This is documented in the Product Guide. It is interesting given the announced death of Optane memory. I assume Powermax does this to avoid the penalty of increasing battery requirement to support the vaulting architecture as inherited from EMC Symmetrix and VMAX.”