This morning Pure Storage’s primary competitor EMC (NYSE: EMC) re-announced the Beta program for the XtremIO storage array

with general availability expected in the 3rd quarter of 2013.  We had expected the general availability announcement at EMC World in May, but suspect EMC wanted to get out ahead of other flash news. The announcement answered certain questions, and raises several more.

What we know:

  1. Software innovation trumps hardware innovation – Today, EMC dumped Project Thunder—their “server centric” flash appliance—in favor of the XtremIO flash array. EMC presumably discovered, as Pure customers have, that off-the-shelf SSDs, processors and interconnects when married with flash-optimized software deliver better real world performance (and far more features) than substantially more expensive custom flash hardware.  (I’m particularly gratified by this EMC decision, as it’s won me a bet with Pure’s cofounder Coz.) For customers looking to make their own winning bets on flash, look to purpose-built flash software plus standard hardware & SSDs, not disk-centric software married to proprietary hardware & raw flash.
  2. Inline, submillisecond deduplication is mandatory  XtremIO is pursuing a solution like Pure Storage’s that uses flash-optimized dedupe to both lower cost and increase performance.  Because flash writes are relatively expensive and random reads cheap, it does not make sense to write the same data over and over again to flash the way it is done on performance disk. With Pure Storage’s launch in 2011, the industry got the first proof that deduplication (and compression) can be accomplished inline with 100Ks of IOPS and sub-millisecond latency. XtremIO may well be the second enterprise product to prove out this feature. 
  3. EMC is likely to be Pure’s principal competitor in all-flash arrays – EMC XtremIO is pursuing a very similar recipe to that embodied within the Pure Storage FlashArray: commodity hardware married to purpose-built software for data deduplication, thin provisioning, space efficient RAID, snapshots, Fibre Channel & iSCSI connectivity, controllers interconnected by Infiniband, and so on.  We believe they are closer than any other player to delivering a product that goes toe-to-toe with Pure.  (It’s also nice to see the XtremIO brand survive and even get applied to technically unrelated PCIe server flash cards.) 

What we would like to know:

  1. How far ahead is the Pure Storage FlashArray? – When competing with a company of EMC’s market reach, you certainly need a technology lead. Assuming EMC hits the 3Q date, then Pure’s generally available release came out ~18 months earlier, but we don’t yet know whether that’s apples to apples on features.  With XtremIO now entering Beta, we are sure to learn more by competing head-to-head on customer workloads.  We welcome that competition, which spurs innovation, drives customer value, and helps grow our market.
  2. How will EMC market and sell XtremIO? – The most exciting thing about all-flash storage with dedupe is that it can be cost competitive with performance disk, but 10X faster, 10X more space & power efficient, more reliable, and 10X simpler. That’s a “no brainer” elevator pitch, but for EMC it represents a classic innovator’s dilemma in terms of what it will do to the VNX/CLARiiON and VMAX/Symmetrix businesses. While XtremIO remains immature, will EMC limit which customers and markets get access to the technology so as to avoid cannibalizing their disk-centric cash cows?
  3. Why no word about High Availability (HA) and Non-Disruptive Upgrade (NDU)? – EMC knows that customers demand that their storage suffer zero downtime, even in the face of hardware problems, software bugs, and major new software releases. Any storage release without HA and NDU will ultimately not be considered GA by storage customers, and so the XtremIO array will effectively still be in Beta until they ship HA and NDU (which, of course, Pure shipped with our GA in 2012). 
  4. Where’s the compression? – The EMC Data Domain disk backup appliance makes extensive use of compression as well as deduplication in order to deliver the greatest space savings to customers. Pure has found that optimal compression algorithms yield comparable savings to dedupe, and is thus a prerequisite for flash to be a cost-effective replacement for disk. Has compression been left out of XtremIO due to architectural incompatibilities or is it just further out in the roadmap?

Looking forward, I am often asked how Pure Storage is going to continue to win with storage leader EMC entering our market. The answer is straightforward:

  1. Build a better product – We have somewhere between an 18-month to 2-year lead. In tech, that’s about as much of a head start as you could hope for. With the deeply talented team we have at Pure, our aspiration is to grow our technology advantage over time.
  2. Delight our customers – Our endusers tell us we are providing the best service and support they have experienced in storage. Our job is to make it even better going forward.
  3. Leverage our partners – EMC has about 30% market share, and they do about 1/3 of their business through the channel. That means about 10% of today’s storage buyers get their EMC storage through a partner. That leaves 90% of the market available to Pure and our channel partners.
  4. Further distance ourselves from the rest of the competition – Our experiences thus far suggest that the barriers to entry for the all-flash array category Pure established in 2011 are well higher than for disk arrays (e.g., getting submillisecond inline dedupe and compression right).  Our prediction is that the all-flash array market will increasingly become on a two horse race between us and EMC, that is one that will likely serve Pure (and EMC) well indeed.

For storage endusers and channel partners, the path forward is also clear: Even if you are an EMC customer today, getting yourself a Pure Storage FlashArray is the best way to see what the future of XtremIO looks like before it arrives. Working with Pure also better ensures you’ll get access to the next-generation EMC technology (as opposed to being told you need to continue to buy VMAX and VNX), and to get a better deal from EMC to boot if you elect to purchase.

At Pure, we envision a world in which storage and virtualization admins, database administrators, CIOs, CTOs, and CFOs all love their storage, love it because it enables their business to accomplish tasks and deliver user experiences that simply were not possible with mechanical disk. We would welcome the opportunity to prove that to your business: we invite prospective customers and partners to trial the FlashArray today and put us head to head with EMC XtremIO (or VNX, or VMAX, or any other technology, for that matter) and we guarantee that you’ll fall in love.