Wind back a couple of years and look at how EMC presented itself to the world at large. It tended to be product-focused and was more interested in touting bigger storage densities rather than much else.

Even though new market entrants were nibbling at its ankles, it tended to be arrogant enough to fall back on an assumption that its customers were locked in to its products. Those who had already bought EMC Symmetrix were more than likely to just buy more of it as space ran out. Buying anything else would lead to too many problems in storage management.

Now look at the recent EMC World 2012 event. Some 15,000 people descending on Las Vegas to listen to Joe Tucci and Pat Gelsinger give voice to what EMC is now and where it is going. Sure, there was lots about product. Apparently EMC launched 42 “new” products – in fact, most were evolutions of existing offering. However, more interesting was how the overlying messaging is changing.

EMC has been an acquisitive company for many years. Besides hardware acquisitions such as Data General in 1999, it started its software spree in 2003 with Legato, and since then there have been other major acquisitions including Documentum, RSA and VMware.

From a storage point of view, a series of excellent acquisitions – if you want fully managed, secure storage of fully searchable assets across a virtual base, it all makes excellent sense. So then to watch EMC continue with Documentum as a separate division, pretty much to lose Legato for a period of time, to keep RSA as a specialised security company and to spin VMware out from the mothership seemed strange to say the least.

EMC acquisitions bearing fruit

However, now things seem to be coming together at last. The creation of the information intelligence group (IIG) in 2011 is bearing fruit as the RSA and Documentum product lines are united with greater focus on general information management and governance, risk and compliance, and storage management is extended to cover highly virtualised systems more effectively and also to include non-EMC equipment.

But, the biggest change is in the high-level messaging. EMC is unsurprisingly a major advocate of the need to be able to deal with big data. However, unlike many vendors who see big data as just a very large database, EMC is looking hard at the aspect of data variety – the different types of data that need to be dealt with, such as semi-structured and unstructured data including document files, voice, and video.

Under an umbrella of object, file and block, EMC is taking these three different types of data storage and pushing the need for different storage engines to create an information-optimised platform for the business.

This approach then brings together what would otherwise be a rather complex portfolio. With a complexity that would stress most people, EMC now offers VMAX, VNX/VNXe, Atmos, Isilon, Centera and Iomega as different storage products, alongside its partner build-your-own accredited approach of VPLEX.

EMC’s portfolio sale

As a portfolio sale, EMC would seem to have a major problem: just what mix of products would be required to meet a given organisation’s requirements?

On top of all of its hardware acquisitions, EMC’s more recent software acquisitions have also been brought to bear. Tools such as Avamar and Data Domain can help with controlling the amount of data under management through data deduplication, as well as Greenplum for big data analytics – along with EMC’s acceptance of the open-source Hadoop platform for unstructured information manipulation.

However, I still worry about how well, and how fast, EMC can move its direct sales force, and particularly its channel away from a product sell towards a complex solutions sell.

It looks as if EMC will focus on the part of the channel it believes can make the transition fairly easily, but will allow others to continue with a hardware-led sell. This approach could lead to customers being sold the wrong product and to EMC being blamed for the outcome. EMC will have to be very careful.

EMC’s cloud ambition

EMC also wants to be the major storage force in the cloud. This ambition means far more than just being able to present a cost-effective scale-out storage platform.

As cloud storage evolves, it will require greater levels of intelligence, with the right data being presented to the right cloud function from the right storage engine at the right time.

Achieving this goal will involve software that can predict usage effectively – and can move data across high latency connections to meet requirements in real time. EMC seems to understand this need and is working hard to provide tools that will be able to meet these requirements.

EMC is moving away from being just a storage vendor. It has a large software portfolio aimed at providing better management of the data and information held across the storage hardware.

Judging by EMC World 2012, EMC is trying to position itself as a different company. It remains to be seen whether its channel, and more importantly, its customers understand the change and see EMC as the vendor of choice for their information management needs – and not just storage.