Array vendors broaden their toolsets

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Storage array vendors may need to go to great lengths to distinguish their products in a field where there's no lack of competition and a growing perception that the hardware is a commodity. Vendors have typically added value to their arrays by loading them up with storage management software that until recently had been options. But that might be changing with added-value apps going beyond what might be considered traditional storage...

management software.

The clearest example of this is Exanet's addition of search software to its ExaStore NAS systems. The software, ExaSearch, integrates with the array's OS and is an end-user tool that searches clustered Exanet storage systems. ExaSearch indexes stored files in the background; Rami Schwartz, Exanet's CEO, says the indexing has only a minor effect on performance and can be scheduled for nonpeak hours. Users can search in real-time using tools such as proximity and wild-card searches; results are displayed in the files' native formats with search terms highlighted.

"Why search and Exanet?" asks Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at the StorageIO Group, Stillwater, MN. "It makes sense if you're going to use it to store a lot of data." Schulz sees Exanet's move as the beginning of a trend, but is uncertain that hardware commoditization is part of the equation.

The urgency to add features might also be coming from users feeling some heat from management. "Storage is one of the largest CAPEX spending budgets within the data center," says Rob Stevenson, managing director, storage at TheInfoPro in New York City, "and the CIO is really looking at those teams to expand the services they offer to the business to justify their large investments." He says storage teams are now picking up responsibilities that hadn't been within their scope. Vendors are responding by broadening the scope of their data management tools.

"One of our secrets is that we enable folks at the app layer to take advantage of our technology," says Chris Bennett, VP of core systems at Network Appliance (NetApp). As proof, he cites NetApp's close integration of its data protection tools that let users do fast, granular restores. Bennett says NetApp's focus will remain storage-centric, rather than adding functions such as search. "We are, in general, not in the app creation business."

There's similar skepticism about adding features such as search at Hewlett-Packard (HP). "We actually look at it from a slightly different angle, basically linking the storage more closely to the app," says Patrick Eitenbichler, director of marketing for HP's StorageWorks Division. He says they haven't seen a need to add search to primary production storage. "I think CDP is higher on the list of what we're seeing." He cites deduplication and encryption as apps under consideration.

Other apps observers see making their way into array OSes include data classification and compression, which are typically delivered as third-party tools.

TheInfoPro's Stevenson notes that data classification often comes up in user interviews, but it's still far from the top of users' lists. Eitenbichler says classification is "definitely something we're looking into." NetApp shares that interest. "More integrated classification is certainly in the mix of things," says the firm's Bennett. "We do that in partnership with other folks today, but that's the kind of thing we could see integrated in the future."

Bennet says NetApp is looking at ways to better integrate security, and compression is also on its list. "Our medium-term plans definitely are to make that available in not just secondary storage environments," he says.

Storage arrays will gain more functions over time. "The more a solution can do, the more appeal it's going to have," says StorageIO Group's Schulz. But in a feature race, a lead can dissipate quickly. "Historically, we see leap-frogging," says Eitenbichler. "Somebody hops and then within three months or six months, everybody has it."

--Rich Castagna

This was first published in September 2007
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