Enterprise IT Watch Blog

Aug 17 2010   4:12PM GMT

Why storage’s ‘safe vendors’ shouldn’t be

Guest Author Profile: Guest Author

Think you’ve made a safe storage decision by going with a trusted name? Think again. Today’s guest post is from Roger Kelley, aka @storage_wonk, who is the principal architect at Xiotech, blogger at StorageWonk.com and one of our featured storage Tweeters.

Of all the challenges faced by Information Technology (IT), purchasing SAN storage for the data center is one of the biggest. Cost, criticality, and complexity are the three C’s that all too often impact the fourth C: career.  IT is quite used to making tactical purchases in the form of servers, routers, desktops, and the like. SAN storage acquisition is harder because it is inherently strategic in nature and therefore poses greater long-term risks/rewards for the company at large. It’s interesting that most companies tend to follow a similar path when the order comes down to evaluate storage for purchase. They form a committee that then draws up a list of weighted requirements for both hardware and software features and functions. They then invite several storage vendors to the party to offer their pitch and from that pool of information, the committee fills out a requirements list in an effort to evaluate each vendor in an unbiased and “left brain” sort of way.

The perplexing part comes in when, after all this effort is expended and the players are evaluated, IT decides to go with a large vendor purely because “Nobody was ever fired for buying _____!” Though they may think they’re playing it safe or smart, what it really indicates is how little confidence they have in their own ability to select a storage vendor based upon the technological merits of the vendor and the unique business drivers of their own organization. People who make storage decisions based upon fear are, in effect, saying, “When it fails I can always justify my acquisition to senior management by hiding behind the perceived reputation of the market leading vendor because that’s what everyone else buys.” This lemming-like behavior can prevent a company from benefiting from newer technologies that might significantly help their bottom line. Given the quality and innovation of smaller companies, this type of thinking is an unnecessary hindrance.

Truth is, there are excellent reasons to look beyond the so-called market leaders in storage and see what the smaller companies are up to. These smaller companies can’t outspend the big ones on marketing so they have to focus on out-innovating them in technology. This innovation has recently led to some amazing technological breakthroughs that the big boys simply can’t offer, such as self-healing arrays (not “fail in place” but truly “self-repairing”), unheard of real-world performance gains without expensive SSD (no, really!), hugely scalable architectures that actually scale, and unmatched levels of reliability.

The problem with the big guys of storage is that they get lax and stifle innovation in favor of playing it safe and keeping the revenue stream rolling along. The smaller players simply cannot afford to be lax, they have to innovate to stay alive and this bodes well for customers who are looking for “best of breed” options for their company. But to take advantage of these innovations company management has to empower their IT staff to make the right technology decisions for the company instead of putting them in a circumstance where they feel they have to make the safe decision for their own careers.

But some may ask, “Isn’t avoiding difficulties precisely why you should buy from the big boys?” Not really! First of all, hardware, from all vendors, can— and does—experience difficulties. No hardware manufacturer can provide 100% perfect operation, 100% of the time, for 100% of its customers. Glitches arise, hardware fails, configurations get mangled due to human error (both vendor and end-user). In short, life happens for everyone. Second, smaller vendors tend to be much more responsive and nimble when difficulties inevitably arise simply because your business means more to their bottom line than it does to the industry giants. If you need a resolution to a problem with a giant company, it can often take 6 months to get a “no”. “Yes” can take considerably longer.

In the end, whether or not your chosen storage vendor is successful in your environment is more about architectural design than brand name. True, a properly architected storage network tends to be more expensive—but then so is downtime! Buying storage based upon technological and business drivers, and spending a bit more to do the job right, are significantly better strategies for company and career than doing things half-way and hiding behind a name when things fail.

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  • Dikrek
    Hi Roger, Dimitris from NetApp here... As one of the big boys (that used to be [I]really [/I]small at one point), I get exactly what you mean. More frequently, a lot of what I see is the fear that a small vendor will not stay in business, or may get acquired for certain aspects of the technology and then discarded, or acquired simply to be eliminated as competition. There's also the fact that small single-product companies rarely survive a bad engineering event (say, a latent bug that causes corruption at the controller level). Typically, the smaller vendors can innovate well but it's also a very focused innovation - witness compellent's auto-tiering, or your own ISE technology. A complete storage solution quickly expands to several other realms, and those realms demand engineering time typically well beyond the resources of smaller companies. It's all a very delicate balancing act, regardless of company size. Take support for instance - initially a smaller company will have fewer support people, then, as it gets bigger, it needs to hire more support personnel WELL BEFORE there's need for them - otherwise there will be the risk of insufficient support resources, which leads to customer dissatisfaction, which leads to lost sales, which can lead to the demise of the company. And, finally, there's the undisputable fact that today's small vendor that doesn't "stifle innovation", will indeed have to be more controlled and careful with the rate of changes as they get bigger. You see, you start with a blank sheet of paper once, and you better make the foundation flexible yet solid, in order to not stifle innovation in the future. So, the message I think really is: If you think that a small vendor is viable and has a certain technology that nobody else does that is [I]crucial to your business[/I], absolutely look at them, with the understanding that they may or may not be able to develop much beyond that certain niche technology. Maybe this will prove useful: http://bit.ly/akF3J9 Thx D
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