EMC’s Atmos, the product formerly known as Hulk/Maui, has gotten the full EMC marketing machine treatment. With a twist: EMC is rolling the dice on an unproven concept.

If it’s eat lunch or be lunch, EMC prefers to dine. I like it.

The pig
I covered Atmos’ academic antecedents – OceanStore and Antiquity – in an earlier post. After looking at the announcement material it is clear that Atmos offers far less than the Berkeley folks envisioned.

They may want to get there, but they aren’t there yet. That’s why we have v1 software.

Squinting past the hype
There are some oddities in the announcement.

  • No customer endorsement. Normal EMC announcements always have joyful customers endorsing the product. For a product that has been shipping since June – according to some EMC bloggers – that Atmos doesn’t is unusual.
  • “Powerful object metadata and policy-based information management capabilities . . . .” Atmos is not a file system – file systems exist on the client – so the lack of OceanStore’s introspective data management feature is ugly.
  • How do you access it? Most attention has focused on REST and SOAP. It does support CIFS, NFS and IFS (Installable File System – haven’t seen that in a while). The latter are more important.
  • Centera vs Atmos. EMC is at great pains to claim that Atmos doesn’t compete with Centera. Obviously it does, since it would be trivial to add the Centera’s features to a cheaper storage infrastructure.
  • EMC tossed out the IBRIX cluster file system in favor of something they gen’d up fairly quickly. A CFS is non-trivial so one must wonder how stable and feature-rich the local storage pools are.

The perfume
All the touting of the policy-based management doesn’t answer the need for introspective object management. In OceanStore, the storage system doesn’t know about relationships between objects – it isn’t a file system – so introspection is important for the system to react intelligently to change.

Let’s say that a webpage with a video on it has links to other videos and multi-megabyte downloads. The policy system in Atmos relies on the user to specify the content’s policy. But if the videos and downloads are specified with different policies, the availability of each component on the page will vary when it catches fire on the web.

An introspective system would note that these objects are associated and move/replicate them together. Introspection isn’t easy, but in a billion object system, humans just get in the way.

The StorageMojo take
None of the big storage companies is doing more to shake up the industry than EMC. Atmos is bold, whatever you think about its chances.

The important point is that EMC is embracing, however gingerly, commodity storage for enterprise customers. They aren’t the first with sub-$2/GB bulk storage, but CIOs listen to them.

Atmos batters EMC’s core value prop with a beta+ product for a not-sure-it-exists nascent market. Atmos is EMC’s boldest move since the original Symm. It may also turn out to be its most successful. Or not.

Atmos seems to have an unusual dispensation from profitability in the interests of giving the technology and the market time to mature. This speaks to a seriousness of purpose that competitors would be wise to note.

From an architecture perspective it isn’t clear whether the overhead of an Atmos is worth the cost. Perhaps a simpler content delivery network structure would deliver 95% of the benefit of Atmos at half the cost.

Right now the product is far from fully baked. EMC will no doubt learn valuable lessons about what the global 5000 and ISPs need from Internet-era storage. Competitors who wait too long will be looking at a steep learning curve.

Google’s Jeffrey Dean is actively looking for an integration strategy to knit together their global collection of data centers into a single namespace. While they have special requirements their reluctance to embrace an OceanStore-like architecture suggests that global cloud storage hasn’t reached a technical consensus.

Make no mistake: Atmos is huge. Whether it wins or someone else does is beside the point. The battle for massive-scale commercial storage has been joined.

Courteous comments welcome, of course.