As a VAR, DR seemed like an ideal solution since it included multiple products and was relatively complex so it would drag a decent amount of PS. But it was always a tough sell. Customers were usually clueless about what a good disaster recovery solution entailed, but getting them to pay anything to resolve this problem was very difficult. You could say they “didn’t know what they didn’t know,” namely, that they had a problem, and therefore were less apt to spend anything on it.
One way to sell DR is to get users to focus on the negatives, the risks they’re running, the cost of downtime, etc. This is the approach everyone takes after a hurricane, like Sandy or Katrina, and was particularly popular after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks. But people have strong denial skills and just aren’t compelled by potential pain to themselves when it’s exemplified by the misfortune of others. Part of the reason may be that the solution has more than a little pain itself.
This is another example of the pain-of-change equation. If it’s more disruptive, expensive, etc., to do nothing than it is to fix a problem, people do nothing. Testing a traditional DR system can be disruptive and expensive as it often requires after-hours work by a number of people at the primary and remote locations and maybe some application downtime as well. It would follow, then, that making DR testing quick and easy is a good way to lower that pain-of-change delta and get people interested in a disaster recovery solution.
Hybrid cloud DR systems allow customers to back up their application servers to the cloud as VM images and then restart those virtual machines on host servers in the cloud. These systems have the added benefit of making DR testing almost trivial. Users can start these virtual servers in the cloud with a couple of mouse clicks. This can significantly lower the pain of running a DR solution and potentially make it an attractive topic to bring up with customers.
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Humans are reactive, not proactive, except in terms of the next event. After each of these disasters, there was certainly a heightened awareness and some action taken by companies, but it’s safe to say that fewer companies took the lessons of disaster preparedness to heart and actually implemented credible DR plans.
Part of the reason is that credible disaster recovery planning has historically been expensive and complex. Starting with offsite vaulting of backup tapes and evolving through disk backup, deduplication and WAN-optimized replication, up until recently DR solutions have remained beyond the means of most SMBs. Now, however, technology may have come to the rescue. The cloud and widespread server virtualization have created a real DR solution that most companies can afford.
Hybrid cloud backup combines cloud backup with an onsite appliance that takes backups from local servers and then facilitates their transfer to the cloud. When this appliance is designed to take backed-up virtual machine images and even perform physical-to-virtual conversion when backing up standalone servers, a real recovery capability is born. Downtime is reduced to almost zero since these VM images can then be restarted on the backup device. When the appliance synchronizes itself with the cloud, where a compute platform is available from which to start and run those VMs, it becomes a real DR solution.
This “hybrid cloud DR” is being offered by many of the same companies that provided hybrid cloud backup and is becoming a part of more and more storage appliance offerings, as an optional service. This means good things for SMBs since it promises to bring costs down further, although hybrid cloud DR is already in a separate class from “traditional” DR solutions, from a cost and complexity perspective. It’s also good news for VARs, especially those that can offer the cloud service as well.
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Cloud storage gateways can address this by offering a number of benefits for users to improve their experiences, starting with bandwidth. There’s no way to get around the need for bandwidth to move data, except to reduce the amount of data that has to be moved. Technologies like deduplication and compression can help to some extent, but they’re not effective with all data types. Also, they don’t really address the problem, which is that in the cloud, data is no longer local.
A cloud gateway appliance that stores a local copy of the enterprise’s most frequently accessed data can greatly reduce the amount of data that has to walk the wire to and from the cloud. These solutions look like a regular NAS device, providing file services including snapshots and iSCSI support to users and applications on the front end. On the back end they transparently send data to the cloud to extend the effective capacity of that NAS almost infinitely, while also maintaining an off-site copy for data protection.
For VARs wishing to add cloud storage to their line cards, gateways make the cloud an easier play. They simplify the implementation part of the equation, since they go in like a NAS system, and eliminate the complexity of dealing with cloud protocols on the back end. Cloud storage gateways also handle encryption, addressing another concern users often have about moving their sensitive data into the cloud.
This leaves the VAR free to use an existing cloud storage provider or set up their own storage infrastructure on the back end to increase margins. Many of these gateway products allow VARs to private-label Web interfaces as well, improving their value-add.
In addition to providing access to cloud storage, gateway appliances can also support applications. As an on-site storage device attached to the network, it’s a natural for handling backup. These products can provide a full-fledged data protection functionality, many without requiring a client-side agent, including sending a copy to the cloud automatically. Some gateway solutions can even support file sharing and collaboration, with other applications possible.
A cloud gateway appliance can give VARs a versatile platform on-site at their customers’ locations, through which they can sell storage capacity, data protection services, file sharing, etc. It can make the transition to becoming a cloud storage services provider easier than ever, providing a new set of solutions to keep clients happy and a new revenue stream to keep themselves profitable.
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VARs are always on the lookout for new products to sell. With Dell’s, HP’s and EMC’s appetites for acquisitions, the chances of an independent VAR losing one of their primary vendors almost every year is pretty good. While acquisition doesn’t mean an existing VAR has to stop selling a vendor’s product, it does often take the fun out of it — especially if you think “fun” is related to things like acceptable margins, a controlled number of VARs in a given geographic area and real attention from the vendor field people when you’re a smaller VAR. Hybrid cloud solutions offer a number of factors that make them an exciting product for storage VARs to consider:
1. They work. While “sexy” new technologies get you into a lot of meetings, the bloom comes off the rose when it takes weeks of PS time (especially your PS time) to get new implementations running. Hybrid cloud solutions are stable, as new technologies go, and there are several different approaches available. Also, it’s not just startups that are offering these products; some big three-letter companies are in the game too, lending credence to the technology.
2. They’re less risky than other new technologies. Hybrid cloud appliances, software or virtual machines can be implemented on an incremental basis — a file server or application at a time. They’re also pretty non-disruptive, since data can be copied to a hybrid appliance in the background. In the case of file services, a hybrid cloud file server can be set up and run for a select group of users or subset of files and expanded as the comfort level grows.
3. They just make sense. The concept of hybrid means a combination or the best of both worlds. In the case of cloud storage, hybrid means adding some features of local storage that addresses its shortcomings. When you’re trying to get a customer to look at something new, there’s comfort in this concept.
4. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many hybrid cloud vendors are smaller, newer companies. They typically offer better margins, more support and won’t flood the zone by setting up a dozen VARs a month in your geographic region and taking the fun out of selling their products.
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Talk about connection gets into an area the public utilities industry calls “the last mile”: physically getting users connected to the public infrastructure. In cloud storage this doesn’t mean how to connect to the Internet; it means the ways in which local storage systems, or even application servers, interface with the storage that’s in the cloud. It also deals with how intelligently they transfer data. No cloud storage solution will be able to move data in the brute-force fashion that it’s done on the LAN. At the end of the day there’s really no way around the bandwidth problem. Like the old expression, the key is to work smarter, not just harder. One approach is a hybrid cloud storage system, a platform that provides fast on-site storage (including SSD) with an active, real-time connection to the cloud’s unlimited capacity. But in order for these systems to work smart, they need intelligence about the data they’re storing.
Taking a page (no pun intended) from Google’s playbook, a local storage system that’s connected to the cloud must know which subsets of its data are the most important, from a time perspective. Like Google, they have to know which blocks of data must be available first, and keep them on fast local storage. These are also the blocks that must be restored first from the cloud in a recovery situation. Similarly, applications stored on these hybrid cloud storage systems have a subset of data that’s always brought up first when the application runs. This “working set” should also be the most available and the first that’s restored.
Some of these hybrid cloud storage systems also have onboard, application-aware deduplication and compression in order to further reduce the data that actually “walks the wire” to and from the cloud. Again, knowledge about applications enables storage systems to work smarter with single-instance data reduction to identify duplicate data objects at the application level, and not just rely on the storage-level dedupe engine to work harder.
For VARs there are a number of vendors that have compelling products in the hybrid cloud storage space. As this industry matures and the technologies solidify, as they are doing now, the opportunities for storage VARs will continue to expand.
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