With the release of the next generation of its virtualization software earlier this month, IBM has fired a shot across archrival EMC's bow. IBM officials touted Virtualization Engine Suite for Storage, coupled with its SAN Volume Controller, as "the killer application in the storage area." Ron Riffe, a storage software strategist at IBM, said, "With it, we will be able to take share from EMC."

The IBM announcement could lead companies to take a second look at virtualization and reconsider virtualization as a useful storage approach. Vendors and pundits have often promoted virtualization as a method to achieve better storage utilization and efficiency. The argument is simple. Storage virtualization lets administrators manage isolated islands of storage as if they're one big pool. Therefore, storage control are streamlined and data migration efforts are automated and simplified.

But the simple argument hasn't always been persuasive. In many cases, the worrisome questions surrounding virtualization have eclipsed its potential benefits. Some administrators have worried about virtualization's implicit complexity. Would they be able to track where data actually resides? Moreover, if one element in the virtual pool were to fail, what would be the effect on the other elements?

And there are other concerns. Although some pundits have blamed EMC for spreading fear and uncertainty, end users have been concerned that virtualization could slow performance and have wondered whether virtualization technology is sufficiently scalable.

In some ways, the IBM announcement, therefore, signals a shift in the way virtualization benefits are being presented to the market. According to Riffe, the IBM announcement has three equally significant components. First, he said, the IBM SAN Volume Controller is the first virtualization-oriented product to pass the Storage Networking Industry Association's (SNIA's) Storage Management Initiative Specification (SMI-S). Second, it supports the entire EMC product line, as well as technology from Hitachi. Third, it has set a performance record for a storage performance virtualization product, according to the Storage Performance Council's SPC-1 benchmark test.

By being SMI-S compliant, the SAN Volume Controller can interoperate with a wide range of storage management technologies. And by encompassing the entire EMC line, it lifts the proprietary lock on EMC storage infrastructures.

That, according to Riffe, is the key significance of virtualization. It unlocks the proprietary lock-in technologies that storage vendors have used to maintain control of their customers' infrastructure. Although storage vendors have talked about interoperability, they have long used services such as copy services and specific device drivers to raise the costs of moving to competitors' technologies.

With this announcement, Riffe argued, IBM now lets end-users pick and choose technology from a huge array of vendors. When vendors actually have to compete for business, prices often fall. Moreover, if end-users can pick solutions that more exactly meet their needs, as well as consolidate their storage infrastructure appropriately, they might well be able to lower their overall total cost of ownership (TCO) in the process.

The last part of the IBM announcement--setting the SPC-1 benchmark for virtualization technology--is key because it directly addresses one of the major concerns end-users have had about virtualization. With a mark of more than 100,000 input/output operations per second (IOPS), the SAN Volume Controller is twice as fast as the previous record holder. Moreover, Riffe contended, the benchmark demonstrated that the software can scale into very large operations and still offer superior performance.

If the SPC benchmark result helps alleviate concerns about the performance of the virtualization layer, the use of virtualization approaches in other IT applications has also raised the comfort level. After all, with the use of RAID technology, administrators might not know the precise physical location of a specific piece of information. Moreover, from the spread of VPNs to grid computing, virtualization is becoming a common concept up and down the hardware stack.

The IBM announcement might serve as a convenient marker to signal the next generation of virtualization, but it isn't the only piece of evidence that the market it shifting gears. This fall, Hitachi introduced virtualization technology with its new TagmaStore Universal Storage Platform (although companies have to buy pricy Hitachi hardware to gain access to the virtualization). And EMC is reportedly readying a virtualization solution for release in 2005.

Competitive pressures could help drive virtualization technology forward. With SMI-S, software vendors will be able to develop applications that run on top of the new infrastructure. And many analysts anticipate that storage virtualization will ultimately play a key role in the effectiveness of utility computing as well as information lifecycle management (ILM). By freeing the storage infrastructure from its proprietary shackles, a new wave of innovation could be unleashed.