This week as part of the GTC 2020 (#2) festivities as well as Arm DevCon, I was able to ask Jensen Huang, CEO of NVIDIA about a question lingering about the company’s data center strategy: storage. NVIDIA has the leadership GPU position, as well as in AI acceleration with its hardware and CUDA software stack. NVIDIA also purchased networking stacks with the acquisitions of Mellanox and Cumulus. With Arm, NVIDIA will have a data center CPU story. Since NVIDIA has a great story around processing and moving data, the logical question is what about storing that data.
The NVIDIA Data Center Storage Plan
On a call this week, I asked Jensen about the conspicuous storage hole in the NVIDIA lineup. Specifically, in light of the company’s BlueField-2 DPU product (see here for “What is a DPU?“) For those who have not been following the genesis of BlueField, when we first covered it in 2017 (see Mellanox BlueField NVMeoF SoC Solution) it was primarily being positioned as a storage solution. As an example, see how the BlueField (1) was being positioned for the classic SAN in 2018:
While NVMeoF is still an emerging space in enterprise data centers, many of the large infrastructure shops already have a solution in the space. Indeed, during an Arm DevCon infrastructure panel, led by Chris Bergey’s team, we heard various cloud providers discuss NVMeoF transitions in the past tense. BlueField-2 has those accelerators built-in, along with some of the surrounding capabilities such as RoCE. In essence, NVIDIA already has the foundational building block to deliver an Arm-based storage NVMeoF or storage node solution with its DPUs. So the question I posed was simply whether NVIDIA plans to tackle that space.
Jensen gave a very unambiguous answer to my question. That was not the plan for NVIDIA. His view was that NVIDIA should engage in the solutions where there is an unmet market need. Storage is one of those areas where he feels that the current ecosystem is doing well. As such, that is not an area that NVIDIA needs to compete directly in.
What Jensen also made clear, is that NVIDIA is looking to enable an ecosystem on the storage side as well. Jensen left the door open to products like the BlueField-2 being used by storage solution vendors. Some context here is that a lot of storage vendors either already have Arm cores in storage or are including more Arm cores in their future solutions. Effectively, NVIDIA seems content to sell its portfolio into the storage ecosystem but is not looking to go into direct competition in the storage space at this point.
From a business perspective, this makes a lot of sense. NVIDIA tends not to compete in markets where it cannot lead, and the path to creating a leading storage solution is a long one.
Silicon Valley is littered with failed storage startups and storage products from big companies that never proved a commercial success. In some ways, it is like the old telecom model where validation cycles are long which means there is a long time between when a product is released and when revenue can be recognized. A new storage solution takes time to gain customer trust. At this point, there are a lot of solutions out there for storage and NVIDIA does not see that as a market to disrupt.
For NVIDIA, it is also important to demonstrate that it is continuing to help increase competition in the data center by providing enabling technologies rather than usurping every aspect of data center infrastructure from its partners. What is clear is that NVIDIA is positioning itself as an enabling technologies partner for the storage system, rather than try to take on that market. Jensen’s message was received loud and clear.