As I guessed on Friday, EMC has officially announced their Maui Atmos software layer today, calling it the “industry’s first COS (cloud-optimized storage) offering”, “a new era for IT”, and “a new category of storage.” So the new era for IT is a cloud with globally-distributed object stores with policy management?
Great! But I thought the new era for IT was a cloud with choice, mobility, and application support, as trumpeted by EMC’s VMware subsidiary! Wasn’t Cloud vServices from VDC-OS supposed to be the prototype cloud strategy for the datacenter?
What we have here is a simple clash of marketing amusingly taking place at (nearly) the same company. VMware figured out how to extend their server virtualization products outside the confines of the data center, and laid that technology out as a strategy with the trendy “cloud” name. Meanwhile, mother EMC is working on next-generation content storage software and decides to roll that out as a strategy and also jumps on the “cloud” meme. What’s an IT manager to do?
As predicted, EMC’s Atmos (code-name Maui) is a distributed software layer to handle the storage and management of data objects across geographically-dispersed storage devices. EMC’s Chuck Hollis demonstrates Atmos with a simple, practical example, perhaps making it sound too much like Akamai but generally getting the point across. You have a data object, write it to Atmos through REST/SOAP or CIFS/NFS, assign some metadata, and the software takes care of data placement for you. It’ll add local copies, replicate for availability and performance, compress or deduplicate, manage versions, and all sorts of goodies (if you ask it to).
But EMC already has a capable object storage platform, the Centera. We’ve just got used to the content-addressable storage (CAS) label for object storage (even though this name misses the point of object storage, in my opinion) and now EMC wants us to learn a new label for a somewhat-similar device? Steve Todd, EMC’s object guy extraordinaire, lays it out:
SAN Value = Centralized, secure multi-tenancy for blocks.
NAS Value = Centralized, secure multi-tenancy for files.
CAS Value = Centralized, secure multi-tenancy for objects (content + metadata).
COS Value = Globalized, secure multi-tenancy for content with rich policies.
Ok, so the defining capabilities of Atmos are its global scale and rich policies. And the fact that “objects” has become “content”, presumably since Atmos can handle traditional NAS (CIFS/NFS) chores as well.
It sounds like EMC is answering my prayers for a storage revolution, delivering a highly-capable object storage platform that transcends the old limits of blocks, directories, and files. Steve Todd points out that Atmos handles five policy categories out of the box:
- Object de-dup
So we write some data to Atmos, using either traditional NAS or webby dubby protocols like SOAP, and can then apply policies in any of these five categories to that data. One can also extend the Atmos to accept other policies, but the absence (out of the box) of concepts like encryption, secure deletion, retention, and access control are surprising.
I am quite puzzled about how practical these policy capabilities will be in the real world. How exactly would an application say “I want you to compress that file I wrote over NFS just now?” Hitachi’s HCAP platform, for example, also has policy capabilities and a NAS front end, and although archiving applications can communicate their policy needs, I don’t see lots of current general-purpose applications using it.
This brings me to my puzzlement: The default Atmos policies are all general-purpose, production computing ideas, not the special-purpose, archiving and retention needs served by Centera, HCAP, and the rest. So the Atmos is clearly intended to be a production data storage system, not an archiving system to compete with Centera.
Since mainstream business applications currently don’t have any capability to specify policies like these when writing files, and since NAS protocols lack any means to communicate them even if the apps want to, we can conclude that EMC expects that Atmos users will write special applications to take advantage of it.
EMC certainly doesn’t expect that the NAS-capable Atmos will simply replace today’s distributed NAS solutions. NAS is a sideshow for Atmos. The real action will be in the REST/SOAP webby dubby applications that will be written with the platform in mind and will take full advantage of these capabilities.
If this is true, and I and others suspect that it is, then Atmos really isn’t a game-changing platform unless you change your game. If you write new applications to store data with SOAP, Atmos is a nice in-house alternative to Amazon S3 or Nirvanix, and offers a very compelling set of data management capabilities. And if you want to set up shop to compete with those service providers, Atmos is a dream come true with built-in multi-tenancy.
So EMC alone has two seemingly competitive datacenter strategies. And then there’s Microsoft, which announced its Azure cloud platform recently, and Amazon and the other cloud providers.
So let’s say you’re a CIO for a large corporation. Which of the following strategies is more compelling:
- Use VMware VDC-OS to add capabilities and Cloud vServices extend your current virtual infrastructure geographically
- Recompile and tweak your Windows applications to leverage Microsoft Azure
- Develop new applications to take advantage of the impressive storage capabilities of an in-house EMC Atmos system
- Point your new applications at a third-party cloud provider like Amazon or Nirvanix
IT people are practical. Although we love new technology, we tend to be cautious. We also hate massive software development efforts, and only sanction them when they’re absolutely necessary. Given these personality traits, I’d say VDC-OS and perhaps Cloud vServices still stands out as the most likely and practical scenario for the majority of applications and businesses.
This is not to say that EMC Atmos will be a flop. I’m impressed by the technology, and expect that Atmos will find buyers, just as Centera did. And Atmos might even replace Centera once EMC adds retention policies to it and scales it down as well as up and out. But Atmos will not redefine the datacenter. We’re stuck with blocks and files, and VMware’s practical strategy is a winner in that world.
Update: Marc Farley compares Atmos to WAFS, with ominous implications, and echos my recent question on what is and is not innovative.
Update 2: Chuck Hollis, Storagezilla, and Len Devanna have all come right out and said that this is only intended for certain customers with massive distributed storage needs, and is not intended as a new datacenter strategy. Even the “cloudfella” says “ciao”:
Update 3: More great information, including a reply regarding VDC-OS and Atmos from the one and only Chad Sakac, more great detail about the inner workings of Atmos from Steve Todd, and even more info from Dave Graham. Finally, although I think that Cloudfellas video is cute, I wouldn’t categorize it as viral. But those Mozy ads are awesome!