Home | Opinion | XtremIO (aka Project X) – Where’s the Innovation? (Updated)
XtremIO (aka Project X) – Where’s the Innovation? (Updated)

XtremIO (aka Project X) – Where’s the Innovation? (Updated)

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There have been a few interesting articles discussing EMC’s anticipated release of Project X, also known as their XtremIO acquisition from earlier this year.  Tom Isakovich, CEO of Nimbus Data has a blog that does a virtual teardown on the leaked hardware specifications.  Robin Harris also chooses to raise the stakes with a commentary on EMC’s problem child.  Somehow I seem to have become embroiled in the EMC mudslinging as my name is quoted as one of Robin’s timescale references.

However, putting the EMC name calling aside, what we’re starting to see is some leaked information (that could of course be fact or fiction) on how the XtremIO product will look.  I agree with Tom’s appraisal that, compared to the rest of the market already out there, the new EMC offering doesn’t seem to be pushing the bounds of innovation.  In fact, the technology as deployed seems to be simply more than a variation of their existing hardware technologies.  Why?  Let’s look at the details.

CLARiiON on Steroids

The leaked system specifications from storagenewsletter.com indicate that a standard system is comprised of one or more “bricks”.  A single brick consists of five separate items;

  • Two storage controllers
  • Two BBU (battery backup units), e.g. standby power supplies or SPS
  • One DAE (disk shelf), 25x 2.5″ SSD

As the bricks scale out to form complete systems, Infiniband switches are used as the brick interconnect, however the other components scale out pretty much consistently.

Each brick seems to be built to the standard dual controller architecture – two controllers with volatile cache, requiring battery backup in order to flush data in the event of a power failure.  The DAE even seems to be the same as ones used elsewhere.  Pretty much a typical design, like CLARiiON for instance.  The specifications for a single brick are:

  • 250,000 random read I/O (4K)
  • 100,000 random write I/O (4K)
  • Power: 1150W
  • Space: 6U
  • Average latency: 0.5ms

By comparison, a single “brick” from Whiptail delivers 250,000 random write I/Os at 0.1ms latency using 200W and 2U.  I could go on and choose more examples (and to be fair, some of the details, such as I/O size and mixed workloads need to be normalised for comparison), however I’m not seeing a revolution in what EMC are offering, but rather a late-to-market product that falls behind the best of the competition.

The Standard Counterargument

In anticipation of a vendor backlash, let me preempt some of the expected comments.

  1. Other vendor solutions aren’t as resilient as the EMC offering.  Well, that one can be argued either way.  Some vendors like SolidFire, are using many multiple nodes to provide distributed load balancing and resiliency, without the need for rackloads of batteries.  Other vendors are building resiliency into their solutions by removing volatile cache into the controllers or moving it to the disk shelves.  It would be naive indeed to think that these startup companies haven’t gone through due diligence on ensuring that their solutions provide the levels of resilience and availability customers will expect.
  2. It’s a 1.0 product, expect more from 2.0 and beyond.  Unfortunately, many existing vendors, e.g. Violin Memory, are already on to their second or third generation of hardware and continue to develop and innovate.  EMC would be required to invest a huge amount of investment effort to leapfrog what’s already out there in a mature market.  Consider EMC’s VFCache as an example.  This is an OEM card that still lags behind other existing vendors in the marketplace.
  3. It gives our customers choice.  Actually I think it creates a confusing situation.  An all-flash VNX or VMAX could potentially deliver similar levels of performance with extra functionality to boot.  There becomes a difficult discussion for the sales team to have regarding which platform best suits the customer requirements, especially if those customers are already familiar with the VNX & VMAX product lines.
  4. Other companies as startups may not be around that long.  That’s true – there is risk investing in using technology from a startup company.  However if you are spending lots of money, this is part of the due diligence you perform and then it becomes a risk factor you weight against all the others when making a judgement.  It doesn’t make startup bad companies; it merely means you have to decide on your level of risk aversion.

The Architect’s View

EMC’s flash strategy started strongly in 2009 when they were the first vendor to use SSD in traditional arrays.  However since then they have been playing catchup with the rest of the storage marketplace.  The XtremIO offering won’t set the world on fire; many startups are way ahead of EMC with faster, more efficient and mature products.  However, inevitably for many existing EMC customers deploying XtremIO will be seen as an easier option than taking a risk evaluating the wider market.  When the product announcements do come, you can be sure the EMC Marketing Machine will be in full swing.


 Related Links

Comments are always welcome; please indicate if you work for a vendor as it’s only fair.  If you have any related links of interest, please feel free to add them as a comment for consideration.

[Note: Point 4 in The Standard Counterargument has since been added after private feedback]

About Chris M Evans

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  • BrandonJRiley

    “An all-flash VNX or VMAX could potentially deliver similar levels of performance with extra functionality to boot.”

    You think? I’m skeptical.

    • http://thestoragearchitect.com/ Chris M Evans

      Well, if EMC ever published performance figures, then we’d know. I went looking for any actual evidence and couldn’t find anything for the VNX 5500-F, other than 10x performance boasts. 10x of what, I have no idea.


      • http://twitter.com/Bacon_Is_King Gabriel Chapman

        Didn’t they submit a SPEC NFS result with an all flash VNX 5700 a while back: http://www.spec.org/sfs2008/results/res2011q1/sfs2008-20110207-00177.html

        • http://thestoragearchitect.com/ Chris M Evans

          Yes, they did and thanks for sharing the link. However I think that referred to file rather than block performance.


  • http://twitter.com/HPStorageGuy Calvin Zito

    I think if EMC could have got similar performance with an all-flash VNX or VMAX, they never would have bought ExtremeIO. Having yet another platform is what David Scott (SVP & GM of HP Storage) called fragmented complexity and exactly why we are driving toward 3PAR as our architecture for solid-state based array and polymorphic as an adjective that describes HP Converged Storage. Check out the Q&A that David had at HP Discover, around the 7 minute mark (bit.ly URL because real one is well, long): http://bit.ly/T4TJ1P

    • http://thestoragearchitect.com/ Chris M Evans

      Interesting thought Calvin. I’ll have more to say on this subject another time.


  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brian-Lara/1266663226 Brian Lara

    If EMC is using VNX technology, what is the point of acquiring xtremeIO for more than 430m?

    if there is a 2 node architecture, you need interconnect, which will increase the Rack unit. Look at SolidFire, its bigger as well. Show me another multinode product which takes much less RU and much less power. The keyword is much less.

    All big companies acquire smaller companies where see potential, EMC is no exception.

    • http://thestoragearchitect.com/ Chris M Evans


      My point is that EMC are deploying “nodes within nodes”. Each brick is 2 nodes with SPS & then there’s interconnect on top. Why have dual nodes then multi-nodes? Other vendors simply have resiliency through many nodes.

      As for the benefit of the $430m purchase, it seems odd to pay so much for a company that had no validated products or customers.


      • chriscowleysound

        > no validated products or customers

        I got into a nice argument on Reddit about that 🙁

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  • http://twitter.com/robcommins Rob Commins

    Hi Chris –

    I also find it interesting how overhyped the all-flash community is. When scrutinized with age-old storage buhing criteria, these arrays are very impractical. Check out what I’m talking about here: http://www.tegile.com/blog/all-flash-arrays-overhyped-impractical


  • Matthew Brender

    Hi Chris –

    First off, I work for EMC AND am in marketing. That said, I’m an ex-Systems Engineer focused on VNX architecture and a performance analysis enthusiast.

    The conversation is running into the classic appeal to ignorance. We don’t know, therefore we presume. On top of that, we presume in a way that pigeonholes into other ideas we know.

    I can’t say anymore publicly than those that have, but if a technology has Chuck Hollis, Chad Sakac and budget-savvy executives around EMC excited, then it isn’t a 6U Whiptail or a rebranded VNX.

    What I can say is during the previews I helped coordinate at VMworld I went through the 7 stages of grief. I was in disbelief how big of a deal Project X is then denied it could be true. Skipping through, I ended up in acceptance – that XtremIO’s SAN architecture is revolutionary – and hope, or rather certainty, that its all SSD ground up design was worth the price point.

    Keep an eye out – you won’t be disappointed once you can learn more.

    • http://thestoragearchitect.com/ Chris M Evans


      I think it’s somewhat disingenuous to imply ignorance in the case of both this post and the subsequent comments. The article was written in response to already published (or leaked information).

      EMC attempts to play customers and the media like a petulant filmstar – one minute loving the paparazzi attention (e.g. the hype of EMCWorld & VMWorld) and then complains when the published material from the media doesn’t suit their cause.

      As for Messrs Hollis & Sakac, they are *paid* to like and be wowed by EMC technology. In fact, I think Chad would enthuse about the contents of a paper bag, given the chance.

      As you work in marketing, why not confirm or deny the leaked specifications? If they are wrong, then we can all move on – if they are right, then they show – as indicated – something not even meeting the competition.

      Either way, an honest discussion on features and functionality would be good, and ultimately more refreshing for customers.


      • Matthew Brender

        The conversation is certainly warranted and the conversationalist here are without a doubt a good group to think aloud with, I’m saying we’re all – me included – tempted by a fallacy here (http://www.fallacyfiles.org/ignorant.html).

        One storage nerd to another, what I’ve gotten my hands on is damn impressive and I’m excited to share that. I like my job too much to speculate on unannounced product specs.

        In the void of public knowledge on the product, I’m more interested by the perspective of Rob: what do people think about the buzz around all-flash?

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