Later this week, I’ll be presenting a session at Storage Expo NL which I imagine will be quite controversial: “VMware as Oedipus: How Server Virtualization will Change Storage Forever“. That’s right, I’m suggesting that VMware is the biggest threat to traditional enterprise storage, and that the company might just bump off its own parent (EMC) in the process. What the heck am I thinking? Read on!
Let’s Talk About Oedipus’ Fate
Most people have only a passing knowledge of the tragedy of Oedipus: he killed his father and slept with his mother, or something like that. But the classical plays about Oedipus revolve on a theme with much broader relevance: How do free will and fate interact?
Both Oedipus and his father, Laius, set up their shared tragedy in response to related prophecies. In trying to avoid their fate, both bring it about. This is a common theme in Greek tragedy and in life more generally.
Before Oedipus is born, his father, King Laius of Thebes, is told by an Oracle that he is doomed to perish by the hand of his own son. In response, he sends the infant away to be killed. Unable to do the deed, Oedipus’ mother, Jocasta, send him away with a servant who leaves him on a mountaintop. A shepherd rescues him and takes him to the childless King of Corinth, where he is raised.
On hearing rumors that he is not the biological son of the king, Oedipus goes to the Oracle at Delphi for advice. But the Oracle tells him that he is destined to murder his father and mate with his own mother, a repulsive fate indeed. To avoid this, Oedipus leaves Corinth and heads to Thebes.
On the road to Thebes, Oedipus meets an unknown man and the to quarrel over who has the right-of-way. Oedipus kills the man and continues on, solving the riddle of the Sphinx and freeing the kingdom from her curse. His reward is kingship and marriage to the Queen. The prophecy is fulfilled: The man on the road is King Laius, and Oedipus’ new wife is his own mother, Queen Jocasta.
The plays of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides explore the implications of the story and the impact that the revelation has on the characters involved. The most important question raised is that of fate versus free will: Could Laius have made his own fate worse by sending away his infant son? And could Oedipus have avoided the prophecy by choosing thought over action? Sophocles decided that fate could not be avoided, no matter what the motivations of the individuals involved.
The Fate of VMware In Enterprise IT
This is the prophecy that I bring to the audience at Storage Expo NL: As VMware adds both internal capabilities and external integration with storage devices, they are destined to come into conflict with the storage industry in general and their corporate parent, EMC, in particular.
Storage is one of the most critical gating factors to the success of server virtualization, so it comes as no surprise that VMware is rapidly innovating in this area. Integrating and developing snapshot, replication, thin provisioning, and other features in VMFS enables everyone to have advanced storage functionality, regardless of which storage device they use. In this way, VMware is already causing many users to forego an enterprise storage array purchase.
But VMware is owned by the King of Storage, EMC, and surely recognizes the benefits that enterprise storage arrays can bring to the hypervisor. Therefore, the VMware engineers are simultaneously attempting to add tighter integration to SAN and NAS storage systems. Truly, VMware does not want to destroy the enterprise storage industry anymore than Oedipus wanted to marry his own mother!
Now comes the tragedy. As VMware innovates on storage, they run up against the inevitable conclusion that current protocols and arrays are poorly suited to the sort of “multiplexed” random I/O that characterizes virtual server workloads. They’ve already noticed this, and responded with vCenter plugins, VAAI, VASA, and a proposal to add demultiplexers to enterprise storage arrays. Storage array vendors are scrambling to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation triggered by VMware’s integration features.
The irony of all this is that this ever tighter integration serves to anonymize and homogenize enterprise storage devices. If all array management is done within vCenter, and only VAAI-supported storage features are used, brand loyalty is no longer required. After all, one storage device is just as good as the next if all offer similar levels of capability and performance. The likely beneficiaries of the nomination of enterprise storage are the vendors of complete solutions: HP, Dell, IBM, and (yes) the EMC/Cisco combination.
But EMC and Cisco are not low cost providers. Their current success is based on the combination of innovation, integration, and support. But the big three server vendors are hot on their tail in all three areas and are better equipped to add value pricing as a sweetener. Again, if an HP server and storage combination works just as well a vBlock, with identical features and management in the VM environment, why not buy it?
VMware doesn’t want to hurt its parent, EMC, any more than Oedipus desired his own parents’ fate. Indeed, VMware spends an incredible amount of time and effort innovating both internal and external integration features for storage. They do this to meet their own I/O demands, not out of bloodlust or hubris. But like the tragic hero in a Greek play, VMware is destined to anonymize and homogenized enterprise storage, and this will drastically affect the future of EMC and other pure storage vendors.