Vendors must adapt to a new environment

Spiraling capacity growth, a deteriorating economy -- are there any vendors ready to step up and deliver the storage efficiency tools we need now?

By Rich Castagna

What does it take to light a fire under storage vendors? That might sound like some kind of nerdy joke, but there's no punch line here. The whole bigger, faster (and more expensive) thing is bred into storage vendors -- it's part of their DNA. But if storage managers want to survive in that world, they're the ones who will have to adapt. So what will make the vendors change? How about a recession coupled with unrelenting data growth?

That's how evolution usually works. When profound changes in the environment occur, the existing life forms have to adapt to a new habitat or perish. But storage vendors are the mammoths of this ecosystem, lumbering along on their chosen paths and seeming to take little notice of the changes going on around them.

Storage managers, though, are survivors. It's part of the job description. They might not have had to deal with such intimidating economic issues before, but for the most part they've been there, done that.

That should spell opportunity, but many storage vendors seem a bit slow to recognize that a new world order -- even if it's only a temporary one -- could make their previously popular products seem old-fashioned and out of step with the times. They were slow to embrace some of the efficiency technologies that have become de rigueur in many storage shops today, like thin provisioning. 3PAR was the thin provisioning pioneer, but for a long time the technology was seen more as an exotic option than a key part of a storage management system. Storage managers, on the other hand, saw the value right away; thin provisioning offered a quick and easy solution to the age-old problem of overprovisioned and underused disk capacity.

A lot of storage vendors, however, translated thin provisioning into fewer disk sales, which is true to a certain extent. But thin provisioning doesn't eliminate the need for additional capacity; it forestalls those purchases by giving storage managers a tool to better use their installed capacity. The disk sales will come, just maybe not as soon or as quickly as in the past. When thin provisioning started showing up as a checkbox on storage system RFPs, vendors finally got the message -- but it was the user community that forced their hand.

Not all vendors are sluggish in their response to changing environments. Dave Raffo, our senior news director, recently blogged about how Compellent bucked this year's quarterly report trend by posting an increase in its profits; a modest increase, to be sure, but up is always better than down. I can't say for sure what accounts for Compellent's success, but I'd guess that storage management efficiency played a part. The company builds efficiency tools into its systems in the form of automated data migration that makes storage tiering easier.

Kudos, too, for NetApp, a company busy proving that deduplication does, indeed, have a place in primary storage systems. And they're doing that by essentially giving it away free with their operating system.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity for storage vendors today is power efficiency. They've been talking a good game for a couple of years by slapping "green" labels on their products, but outside of a handful of vendors tinkering with MAID or MAID-like technologies, most of the green stuff we've seen seems more like marketing mumbo-jumbo than real energy savings.

That might have been OK a year or two ago when most storage managers had higher priorities than cutting power costs. Today, however, power consumption is squarely within most storage managers' sights.

But the same problem persists: Storage vendors conveniently use their own metrics to rationalize their products' green-ness. We get kilowatts per I/O, kilowatts per terabyte, kilowatts per tile and a host of other predictably favorable ratings. But no common and comparable metric exists simply because storage vendors don't want you to do an apples-to-apples comparison.

In this age of opportunity, some enterprising storage vendor may have the nerve to step up and produce a set of meaningful metrics. All sorts of consortia and industry groups have been waving the green flag for years now, with very little to show for all the hoopla. But wouldn't it be nice, for example, if a vendor with a real power conservation story to tell came out with a broad scale of power consumption numbers that matched every other vendor's particular twist on the topic? You'd get your apples-to-apples comparisons, some truth in advertising and maybe just one more step in the evolution toward storage efficiency.

Click here for a sneak peek at what's coming up in the July/August issue

BIO: Rich Castagna (rcastagna@storagemagazine.com) is editorial director of the Storage Media Group.

This was first published in June 2009

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