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IBM flash storage key to turnaround, says GM Walsh

Ed Walsh takes over as general manager of IBM storage to reignite sales. He says customers 'challenged by disruption' turn to flash storage to modernize IT.

With IBM storage in a years-long tailspin, the IT giant last June brought in industry veteran Ed Walsh as general manager of its storage and software-defined infrastructure division.

In his first in-depth interview since rejoining IBM, Walsh highlighted IBM flash storage, cloud and cognitive computing as the keys to executing a storage turnaround.

Walsh has been CEO at four startups, most recently at copy data management specialist Catalogic Software. He also had an earlier stint at IBM. Walsh was CEO of Storwize when IBM acquired the primary data compression vendor in 2010, and he stayed at IBM as a vice president of IBM storage until 2013. Walsh was also CEO of backup data deduplication pioneer Avamar Technologies, selling that startup to EMC in 2006.

IBM rounded out its flash portfolio last year with FlashSystem A9000 cloud arrays, adding to its Storwize and DS8880 hybrid flash systems. The FlashSystem is based on custom flash modules and runs the IBM Spectrum Accelerate codebase.

The emphasis on IBM flash storage is tied to expanded use cases for IBM Watson cognitive technology for big data applications. Walsh said IBM's "flash first" approach is the key to reversing a revenue slide in three of the past four years.

How have things changed since your previous stint at IBM storage?

Walsh: I came back to IBM storage at a very challenging time for our customers. There are the normal challenges associated with consolidation, but they also need to get [up to date] very fast with technology. Cloud and cognitive computing are two big things we're seeing.

Ed Walsh, general manager of storage, IBMEd Walsh

Why are your customers adopting all-flash storage?

Walsh: They want to do more with their data. Data is the resource on which everything depends. Our clients are challenged by disruption taking place in their own industries. They need to know how to reduce costs and transform their business. Flash has tremendous benefits for application performance, but also for modernizing your infrastructure. Flash frees your team from managing the performance of applications to make that transformation at your pace and speed -- little things like buying fewer disks because you're no longer wide-striping across multiple hard disk drives. Eighty percent to 90% of your storage challenges go away when you move to all-flash.

What are the specifics of the IBM flash storage strategy moving forward?

Walsh: Our portfolio is going to be "flash first." IBM sells a lot of hybrid block arrays and we'll obviously continue to give you choices. But we definitely see flash becoming pervasive. We also are thinking through flash for every workload, which is why we have multiple flash products.

We have primary research teams around the world looking at these disruptive things. In the face of disruption, people can end up hesitating.
Ed Walshgeneral manager of storage, IBM

One of our advantages is the ability to go outside IBM storage and leverage the entire IBM portfolio. We're not just developing new IBM flash products. We have primary research teams around the world looking at these disruptive things. In the face of disruption, people can end up hesitating. IBM has a long history of helping clients through these eras of change.

IBM recently added PCIe support to its DS8880 flash enclosures. How soon before you roll out support for nonvolatile memory express (NVMe)?

Walsh: You'll see us add NVMe through the whole product line within the next 18 months or so. We'll use NVMe in federated storage, but also as connectivity using NVMe fabric. Those technologies are maturing. We'll have NVMe across our portfolio from low end to high end. NVMe gives you certain use cases inside a server or inside an array ... and NVMe over Fabric will especially help support our focus on cognitive workloads.

How does cognitive storage use IBM flash storage?

Walsh: Look at how you use data to drive your business through better insights. Say you're doing a poll to get some analytics. How do you run the poll? How do you tell the system, 'Tell me ... this answer,' and then put some understanding around the answer. Cognitive is placing reason around the data so you understand it and get help with decision-making. Those applications takes a lot of CPU and memory, so flash media allows you to do those things better.

Memory channel storage is rapidly gaining in usage, especially for NoSQL databases. How important is it for IBM to add a branded flash DIMM?

Walsh: The days of doing in-memory databases will expand. There are a lot of applications that need high resiliency and serviceability. On use cases like analytics, the focus is on performance. On others, it's performance and enterprise data services. That's the advantage of a having a primary research team that can look at these things. Flash, NVMe and NVMe over Fabric are rapidly changing performance and cost equations. You'll see us aggressively bring those products to market.

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