Last week I realized that I hadn’t seen any research papers from EMC technologists, despite cruising they highways, byways and deep weeds of storage research for some time. I know they have smart guys. What are they doing?

They’re salesmen, making 800 large.
Just kidding. After the micro-review of CTO Jeff Nick in Part I, I figured the next stop would be a careful review of all of EMC’s patents over the last year or so. How many could there be?

More than I wanted to contend with.
I counted 164 patents assigned to EMC granted in CY 2006. Knowing the company I assume they are meticulous about getting all patents assigned, but if not, there could be others.

I was impressed by the number – almost 15 a month.

Highly unscientific survey of the patents follows.
You’ve been warned. Another effect to remember: because these are granted patents they reflect research and invention the company was doing 3-5 years ago. I haven’t taken a look at the patents of other companies, so there is no comparison express or implied.

The patent titles are sometimes misleading, so it pays to at least check the abstract. For example, does Dual power bus data storage system suggest the following to you?

A data storage interface for coupling data between processors and a bank of disk. The interface includes a plurality of first directors coupled to the processors and a plurality of second directors coupled to the bank of disk drives. A cache memory is coupled between the plurality of first directors and the plurality of second directors. The interface includes a pair of independent power busses. At least one of the first or second directors is coupled to the pair of independent power busses. One portion of the disk drives in the bank is connected to only a first one of the pair of power buses and a different portion of the disk drives is connected to only the other one of the pair of power buses.

I’m leaving out the juicy parts, but I guess this has something to do with making Sym’s more bulletproof.

After looking at the titles and then looking at about a dozen of the patents, my conclusions are:

  • An unsurprising focus on hardware
    • “Apparatus and method for highly available module insertion”
    • “Method of forming a ball grid array device”
    • “Label cassette for an electronics enclosure”
  • A bunch of people working on either improving or adding features to Syms
  • But it isn’t all Sym tweaking and cable management
    • This one, out of Seattle, sounds a bit like several NAS virtualization servers:

      A virtual file system and method. The system architecture enables a plurality of underlying file systems running on various file servers to be “virtualized” into one or more “virtual volumes” that appear as a local file system to clients that access the virtual volumes. The system also enables the storage spaces of the underlying file systems to be aggregated into a single virtual storage space, which can be dynamically scaled by adding or removing file servers without taking any of the file systems offline and in a manner transparent to the clients. 7,024,427

    • This sounds a bit like Google or Isilon. A “cluster meta file system” from Hopkinton:

      File system cells are linked together to form a meta file system that appears to a user or application program to be a single file system. The meta file system permits concurrent access by multiple processors in a file server wherein each file system cell is managed by a respective one of the processors. The file server responds to a directory access request by returning a file handle containing a file system cell ID and a pointer to a file in the file system cell. The file server responds to a subsequent file access request including the file handle by extracting the file system cell ID and the pointer to the file, searching a routing table for an entry having a file system cell ID matching the file system cell ID extracted from the file handle, and routing the request to the processor managing the file system cell. 6,775,679

    • Or “Using the message fabric to maintain cache coherency of local caches of global memory.” 7,136,969

The StorageMojo take Part II
Most of what I saw in the patents was tweaking of shipping products. No surprise there. A few patents cover technologies that were then reasonably leading-edge. Some of the areas EMC’s researchers were working in have turned into fast growing storage businesses such as Isilon. Which makes me wonder.

VMware’s upcoming offering is valuing the company at about $1B. Compare that to the current $800m market cap of Isilon. Is turning the $635 million EMC paid for VMware three years ago in into $1B today is such a good deal for EMC’s long-suffering stockholders? It sure looks like EMC could have invested $100 million in these emerging storage markets, using technology it was already paying its engineers to develop, and built businesses with a better return than they look to get from VMware. Riskier, yes, and more lucrative.

Stay tuned for EMC has Ph.Ds? Part III There may even be a part IV.

Update: Anil Gupta, working storage professional and nice guy Network Storage blogger wrote in to take me to task for undervaluing VMware. He thinks if could be worth a lot more than the $1B implicit value I construed from the registration. He is correct. Some folks are putting the value at $5-7B – and 8-10x pop.

Still, a few weeks ago Isilon had a $1.6B market cap. With EMC’s sales force behind them, which is the same advantage they offer VMware, I’d expect that their uptake and market value would also be on the high end of that, perhaps a good deal higher.

Comments welcome. If any EMC’ers want to comment anonymously about the company’s willingness to strike out in new directions using internally-developed technology, I’ll be happy to accommodate you. I recommend that you use your non-work email since I’ve heard the company monitors email pretty closely.