“We’re #1!” is the proud cry that every team and organization would like to make, and IBM can claim that proud distinction for software-defined storage. The evidence comes from market research vendor International Data Corporation (IDC), which has ranked IBM #1 in the worldwide software-defined storage (SDS) market for the third straight year.

This is a meaningful distinction as the software-defined storage market is large and is expected to continue its rapid growth. IDC estimates that the market for SDS would grow at a 40% CAGR in 2015-2020 and reach $1 billion in 2016. This is the fastest of any of the seven storage software functional markets that IDC tracks and shines in comparison to what IDC says is the low performance of storage replication and infrastructure solutions.

In short, IBM has chosen the right functional storage market horse to ride (although, of course, it participates in the other functional markets where it is amongst the leaders in all storage software categories, as well as a large full-spectrum IT vendor).

That said, we need to examine three questions:

  • What is the software-defined storage market exactly and what is the impetus for its growth?
  • Why does IBM continue to succeed in SDS?
  • Why does being #1 in SDS matter to IBM?

Software-defined storage delivers greater storage management flexibility

The storage market was long dominated by the idea that using a storage-area network (SAN) as shared storage overcame the limitations of direct-attached storage (DAS). This tidy model was primarily dominated by block-based solutions but was later added to with file-oriented, network-attached storage (NAS), which also became prominent. Then the storage world changed dramatically, not only due to the continuing exponential growth of storage, but also because much of that data was in semi-structured and unstructured forms instead of the traditional structured data, such as in SQL databases that neither block nor file-based solutions can fully address.

In addition, the variety of use cases for storage has increased radically, especially in areas such as big data, Web computing, mobile computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT), all of which can incorporate semi-structured and unstructured information. As a result, traditional deployment (and consumption) models (i.e., how storage is provisioned and consumed) for storage systems were no longer satisfactory in many cases.

Enter software-defined storage, which decouples the storage controller software that manages traditional storage array systems from the underlying physical storage. The result is a software-based model that increases deployment flexibility, enabling customers to choose to use the decoupled software with virtually any heterogeneous storage platform rather than being locked into a particular vendor’s storage system.

But along with being deployed in software-only situations, SDS can also be used in appliance-based and service-based (think cloud) deployment models. In addition, instead of being limited to scale-up block and file solutions of traditional siloed SAN and NAS systems, SDS supports  not only scale-up, but also scale-out as well as choices of block, file and object storage in the right combination as appropriate.This ability to address a large diversity of existing and emerging storage requirements is what is fueling SDS growth.

Why IBM continues to be successful in SDS

Product maturity, product diversity/breadth, and deployment model flexibility are major reasons for IBM’s continuing success in SDS. Its product portfolio — the IBM Spectrum Storage Family — now offers eight innovative solutions. The original six were essentially existing products that were integrated to tighten IBM’s focus on SDS. All were proven solutions so they offered customers levels of maturity and diversity that IBM competitors from startups to the industry’s largest vendors cannot match.

IBM has also been able to build upon this solid foundation. For example, to highlight the flexibility of its offerings, it has taken its Spectrum Scale product that supports scale-out file and object storage capabilities and tightly coupled it with IBM Elastic Storage Server all-flash solution, resulting in a high capacity (up to 512TB in a 3U form factor), all-flash storage appliance.

Few, if any, IBM competitors are likely to be able to deliver the same capabilities without substantial specialized work and investment. Another example is the service-based deployment model found in IBM’s new Cloud Object Storage, a solution that delivers geographically-dispersed hybrid cloud object storage. This diversity of support scenarios and the ability to combine solutions in software-only, appliance, or service-based deployment models highlights why SDS customers continue to come to and stay with IBM.

Why being #1 matters

Being ranked a first-in-class vendor is more than a press release opportunity for IBM. It is a validation of the company’s position, prowess, and strategy in the software-defined storage market. It should resonate with virtually all IT organizations, both those that are current IBM clients and those that may become future customers

Why? The answer is simple. Vendors that are #1 in rapidly growing markets are likely to stay there and  continue investing in their products. Not only that but for IT vendors, first-in-class ranking qualifies as a proverbial Good Housekeeping Seal for their solutions. The proverbial “Nobody ever got fired for buying from IBM” typically doesn’t really apply to emerging solutions, as IT organizations widely review and buy from many vendors. Still, enterprises are likely to feel more comfortable evaluating SDS products from IBM  knowing the company’s #1 ranking by IDC.

Mesabi musings

The software-defined storage market is a large (by software standards) market, and IDC has projected a rapid revenue growth in the market through at least 2020. So being IDC’s #1 ranked vendor in this space is a particularly desirable position.  Now, IBM is by no means alone in providing high-quality, value-added SDS products. Still achieving the #1 position means something, including a broad market acceptance that indicates that a vendor “must be doing something right.”

In the case of IBM, that “something right” is about product maturity (a foundation of well-proven products over years), product diversity (no one SDS product aimed at all use cases), and deployment flexibility (the Burger King, “have it your way” approach of software-only, appliance-based, or service-based deployment models). Taking these points into consideration, it is easy to see why IBM has indeed earned its way to being IDC’s #1 SDS vendor.