EMC Licenses i5 Interfaces from IBM for Symmetrix Support
March 27, 2006 Timothy Prickett Morgan
The minute storage area networks, or SANs, took off as a technology, some sort of truce between IBM, which controls the OS/400 platform, and EMC, one of the four major suppliers of external disk arrays that are commonly at the heart of SANs, was probably inevitable. But it is difficult to get two stubborn competitors to cooperate, and the several hundred big iSeries shops that use EMC’s Symmetrix arrays undoubtedly did a little arm twisting to get these two companies to work together.
Neither EMC nor IBM, of course, will come out and say that, of course. But it just so happens that EMC has the lion’s share of externally attached disk storage in the iSeries market, and that the hundreds of customers that use Symmetrix arrays in conjunction with their OS/400 servers as well as with other Unix, Windows, and mainframe platforms in switched SAN fabrics spend lots of money on IBM servers and software and lots of money on EMC storage. Money talks, and those who want money often listen.
And to that end, IBM and EMC last week announced a five-year licensing agreement that will give EMC’s engineers access to the storage, security, and other interfaces that are necessary for them to make EMC’s Symmetrix DMX arrays work with the latest System i5 and future machines as well as i5/OS V5R4 and future releases and versions of the OS/400 platform. EMC says that the deal was necessary because customers want to be able to upgrade their systems to i5/OS V5R4 as soon as possible and they also want to have some kinds of assurances that there will be more or less concurrent support from this point forward. OS/400 support on EMC’s Symmetrix arrays has often significantly delayed the introduction of new EMC products or updates of the OS/400 platform from IBM, and this was a pain in the neck for those big OS/400 shops. Considering that the biggest iSeries shops tend to spend the most money at IBM, what these customers want is a neck massage, and IBM finally working with EMC shows that when properly motivated, IT vendors can come to some sort of agreement.
We recognize that we need to be committed to open innovation, which improves system interoperability,” explained Ian Jarman, product manager for the System i5. Being the sarcastic person that I can be, I asked Jarman who blinked first, EMC or IBM, and how the deal came about. He didn’t say if IBM approached EMC or visa versa, and my contacts at EMC didn’t say anything about it, either. Both said that EMC and IBM have been working more closely as the years went by. In October 2003, IBM licensed interfaces for the mainframe to EMC, so it could keep its Symmetrix arrays in lockstep with IBM’s mainframe hardware and z/OS operating systems. This, of course, begs the question as to why iSeries support wasn’t part of that licensing deal. To which I got no answer. That October 2003 announcement was part of a broader wave of openness that is sweeping over the storage industry as arrays get lots of functionality to mirror, snapshot, and replicate data behind the backs of servers. Disk array support is not as simple as emulating a 3390 or 9337 volume in MVS or OS/400 these days, and disk support on the OS/400 platform has been made more complex because of its single-level storage architecture.
Last June, IBM and EMC inked a cooperative support agreement for the OS/400 platform, which meant EMC’s and IBM’s technical support organizations agreed to not point fingers at each other when things go wrong, but rather work in conjunction with each other to fix whatever problem customers might be having when they marry an OS/400 server to a Symmetrix array.
To IBM’s and EMC’s credit–and again, because I think customers leaned on both vendors–this is a lot of progress compared to days gone by. As recent as 2002, EMC was attaching its Symmetrix arrays to OS/400 servers by emulating iSeries disks using AS/400 or iSeries hardware and a load source emulator. This load source emulator was an IBM disk drive electronics jacket with the physical disk removed, into which EMC plugged in the Symmetrix array with a sufficient number of these disk electronics jackets to provide bandwidth between the OS/400 server and the Symmetrix array. As far as OS/400 knew, it was just talking to IBM disk drives, though it was in fact talking to the Symmetrix through these electronics packages, which were called 8HDAs. In October 2003, when the mainframe interface licensing deal was struck and when IBM has long-since moved to Fibre Channel-derived High Speed Loop (HSL) technology for attaching peripherals to the iSeries, EMC partnered with Crossroads Systems to create a Fibre Channel variant of the 8HDA interfaces so customers could use Fibre Channel switch fabrics to link the iSeries to Symmetrix DMX arrays.
As part of the joint support agreement, EMC had access to i5/OS releases already, but under this licensing agreement, EMC will get these releases a lot earlier and will have access to all of the relevant software APIs (and detailed specifications on how to make use of them) way earlier. This should speed up support for i5/OS on the Symmetrix arrays considerably. As it is, the current Symmetrix DMX arrays have some limited support for i5/OS V5R4, but new security features were tough for EMC to crack (which is a good thing), and hence the licensing deal. EMC sources say that the company will have full support for i5/OS V5R4 before the second quarter is over. And going forward, the EMC will be able to offer broader and deeper support for its Symmetrix software–something that IBM’s own storage division has been working hard to bring to market, too.
Of course, now that IBM has demonstrated that it is willing to license i5/OS interfaces to a competitor, will it offer such licensing to other vendors? Will there be more competition for disk arrays in the iSeries market? One can always hope. But keep breathing while you hope, because if you hold your breath until it happens, you will surely pass out.