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Is EMC a storage hardware company or a storage software company? Or perhaps, something different? Certainly, EMC execs are strategizing along the latter line, and will point to a big step in that direction on Monday.

Several years ago, EMC Corp. embarked on a major effort to remake itself from the world’s premiere vendor of enterprise storage technology to an integrated storage solutions company. That makeover was founded on a series of software acquisitions costing about $4 billion. The first fruits of that makeover will be revealed today at the company’s EMC Forum road show in New York.

EMC will introduce a series of “Proven Solutions,” or tuned packages of hardware and software aimed at meeting compliance requirements, heavy-duty content retrieval and e-mail archive. The solutions comprise various software products as well as EMC’s Centera storage systems.

Each of the bundles leverages various pieces of software that EMC has picked up with its recent acquisition strategy. For example, the new Proven bundles include technology from content-management vendor Documentum Inc., which EMC spent about $1.7 billion for in the fall.

According to Peter Gerr, analyst with Enterprise Storage Group of Milford, Mass., “these compliance announcements are evolutionary, not revolutionary.”

On the other hand, Gerr considered EMC’s Centera line a revolutionary product, “since it created a whole new [market] segment—content-addressable storage.”

Yet, some IT managers have found it tough to get their minds around this CAS (content-addressed or content-aware storage) pitch when compared with more familiar technologies such as NAS (network-attached storage) and SAN (storage area network). CAS is constructed with compliance and other content-centric applications in mind, rather than as a general storage for file services.

In addition, other storage makers have stepped forward to offer products with CAS concepts, such as IBM with some of its TotalStorage solutions. Gerr said Network Appliance Inc. has done an especially good job moving into the space with its NearStore hardware and SnapLock archival software.

“Proven Solutions extends EMC’s ability to sell intelligent solutions rather than just a technology. For the past two years, EMC has been selling Centera as a technology and an innovative technology. But now it has to mature,” he said.

EMC’s new packages will help differentiate its solutions from the increasing competition as well as show the market that the company is making progress from its acquisitions, he added.

“It’s important to show that EMC is keeping up the momentum and leadership in the market,” Geer said.

Other past purchases by EMC were for storage management technology,as well as for applications that were a logical fit with its storage lines, such as the year-ago buyout of backup software makerLegato Systems. The backup technology is used in some of the packages announced Monday. Another large purchase was virtualization technology vendor VMware. (Of course, the company has a long history of famous-name hardware-centric acquisitions, including Conley and Data General.)

Regardless of the perception, the new Proven Solutions are no slam dunk for EMC.

First, software and solutions packages still are a long way from being EMC’s core business strength. A year ago EMC boss Joe Tucci described EMC as a “technology-led, information storage solutions company, where software plays an ever-growing role.” In other words, the company hopes to make software and solutions an important component of its revenues in the future.

However, while the software additions help with the bottom line, EMC is still firmly a hardware company. For example, EMC reported revenues of $1.87 billion in the quarter, with software coming in with a $484 million share for its first fiscal quarter.

I was interested to see that EMC continues to make moves in the channel. In the past, EMC relied on its direct sales force and partnerships with companies such as Dell. At the company’s April stockholders meeting, CEO Joe Tucci said the company is launching new distribution partnerships, while focusing its direct sales force on the company’s 2,500 largest accounts.

This shift in channel strategy may help move EMC’s solution packages as well as its new low-cost SAN systems.

But there’s a more fundamental concern: Are the customers for a solution-based approach the same as the company’s traditional base? I see a big difference between the two segments and when I suggested as much to industry-watcher Gerr, he agreed.

Most likely the IT manager filling another slot in the rack—EMC’s traditional customer—will not be the same buyer as the director deciding on an RFP (request for proposal) for a compliance solution. Worse, as mentioned before, even the usual IT buyer may prefer the technological pitch rather than the solution approach of CAS.

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