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Hitachi storage technologies underpin AI and cloud plans

Hitachi Vantara is making several pivots from the storage vendor previously known as Hitachi Data Systems. But has it gone too far from its core storage technology?

As an indication of its future direction, Hitachi Vantara devoted much of its recent user conference to explaining where its storage fits with AI and the internet of things.

While company executives painted the big picture at Hitachi Next in September, details on the Hitachi storage strategy received little attention. The specifics will start coming out within the next several months, said Nathan Moffitt, Hitachi senior director of AI operations software and infrastructure systems.

"Over the long term, there will be a couple pivots we're going to make," Moffitt said. "One is to have a storage operating system with the agility to cover a broader range of use cases at the core, the edge and the cloud. Another pivot is to coalesce and collate data sources to help you make better decisions."

Hitachi Vantara is a subsidiary of Tokyo-based Hitachi Ltd. The company was launched in 2017,combining its Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) storage unit, Hitachi Insight Group and Pentaho IoT data analytics.

But some wonder if the vendor already regrets its decision to move away from the HDS brand. Hitachi's cloud message is hazy, and it appears to be playing catch-up to competitors with integrated storage for AI, nonvolatile memory express (NVMe) flash and multi-cloud data services.

"I think Hitachi made such a wide swing away from the storage message that they realized they may have gone too far. Now they're trying to get the pendulum to swing back the other way," said Mark Peters, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "From everything they've said, it sounds like they're trying to go back to being Hitachi Data Systems, which had more of a focus on the storage."

Hitachi AI tools

The name change signaled Hitachi's intent to sell storage and other technologies to a limited number of customers, mostly high-dollar contracts with longer sales cycles.

The most recent Gartner Magic Quadrant report lists Hitachi Vantara's Virtual Storage Platform (VSP) as a leading all-flash array. But by design, Hitachi is selling less of its flagship storage directly to mainstream data centers. The vendor said it has mostly ceded hardware refresh cycles to competitors, preferring to target high-end industrial sectors.

The strategy enables Hitachi storage to be combined with other business products in the Hitachi portfolio. Hitachi Ltd. posted $19.9 billion in consolidated revenue in the quarter that ended in June.

The move to develop storage for analyzing machine-generated data fits the overall Hitachi portfolio, which includes companies spanning the automotive, construction, defense, electronics, energy and medical industries.

"Hitachi storage is [aiming] at a higher level, which allows other parts of the Hitachi portfolio to be brought into a solution. That helps them create sales opportunities at the line-of-business level, rather than just the IT level," said Eric Burgener, an analyst at IDC.

An example is Hitachi Transport System (HTS), which sells trains, tracks and other physical infrastructure. HTS reportedly is bidding on a multibillion-dollar contract with Finland's national railway system that would include storage and AI automation technologies.

Hitachi's storage innovations now center on mobility across local and cloud tiers. It's an approach other vendors have taken, most notably the NetApp Data Fabric technologies.

The "intelligent data pipeline" encompasses primary Hitachi VSP storage arrays, Hitachi Content Platform object storage, Hitachi Enterprise Cloud and multiple hybrid clouds, said Iri Trashanski, a senior vice president of infrastructure and edge products at Hitachi.

"We've seen data centers move from consolidated architecture to one that is more distributed. We added capabilities at the edge. We call it an intelligent data pipeline. We help you ingest, cleanse, enrich and monetize your data," Trashanski said.

An update in June to the flagship Hitachi Storage Virtualization Operating System (SVOS) added support for software-defined storage on commodity servers. SVOS was supported other vendors' hardware before, but only via the VSP controller.

Hitachi customized the code base for different models of VSP hardware.

"It's not a full virtual machine, just an encapsulation of the code that can be dropped onto any system," Moffitt said.

NVMe for hyper-converged expected in 2019

Hitachi in September launched an all-flash Unified Compute Platform hyper-converged infrastructure with integrated NVMe flash. NVMe-based VSP arrays are also on Hitachi's storage roadmap.

Even though most storage vendors already sell NVMe products, Hitachi said it will wait until 2019 to introduce a generation of NVMe flash-based VSP arrays. In the meantime, Hitachi will help customers identify the best use cases for NVMe flash, said Mark Adams, a Hitachi product marketing and business management director.

"NVMe is not a plug-and-play technology. There are a lot of things that need to be considered. We want to help customers make sure they deploy NVMe for the right use cases," Adams said.

Hitachi's custom flash hardware helps its SAS-based VSP arrays deliver performance that is close or equivalent to NVMe flash, Adams added. "We don't have any customers complaining that our SAS-based VSP arrays are too slow -- none," he said.

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