Bracing for change in storage ... or not

Despite recent acquisitions and rumors of more mega-mergers, the data storage landscape isn't likely to change all that much over the next few years.

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Despite recent acquisitions and rumors of mega-mergers, don't expect the storage landscape to change all that much over the next few years.

After many years of meeting with IT professionals and storage vendors, presenting at seminars and trade shows, and conducting research, it's clear to me that storage is still very confusing for users. It's not the complexity of the technology that's hanging them up, but rather which vendors/products to select for their environments. There's no single leader that's the right choice for everyone.

This is certainly true with storage-area network (SAN) storage, which generates the most vendor revenue and has the most competition. Dell, EMC, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi Data Systems, IBM, LSI, NetApp and Oracle all have multibillion dollar SAN storage revenue. And there are dozens of other vendors -- like Compellent, Nexsan, Pillar and Xiotech -- that might be making less today but are still having an impact.

I'm going to stick my neck out and predict that for at least the next five years nothing substantial will change in the SAN storage market. The leaders will continue to battle it out with no major innovations that could shift the landscape significantly. It will be competition based on feature creep year after year. SAN storage systems will continue to get better at optimization with better provisioning, replication, dedupe, compression and intelligent tiering, which is all good stuff but just the natural progression of the technology. Market share may swing from one vendor to another, and while the scales will tip here and there, it won't result in a single leader that can boast a 70% market share. There won't be any kind of big bang event that will change the primary SAN storage game.

For years it's been rumored that Cisco will buy EMC. That's perhaps the only "conceivable" event that could happen within the next five years that would have a major impact on the industry. But I believe the pairing would be devastating for both companies. Their cultures would clash and Cisco would discover that selling storage is very different than anything else it does. And because EMC has become a very complex and diverse company, with a wide range of solutions that are even further afield from Cisco's core competency, it would cause even greater difficulties. EMC would lose whatever dominance it has in storage and the backlash would stagger Cisco for many years to come.

There are other areas of storage where there's clear leadership. EMC with Data Domain is the leader in disk-to-disk (D2D) backup storage. While there are other players on the field, none of them has the momentum or success of Data Domain. The only thing that can stop Data Domain is another major shift in the industry: an unforeseen approach to backup that will eclipse them in value and simplicity. But something like that would take years to develop and propagate, so they're safe for at least the next five years.

Primary network-attached storage (NAS) also has a clear leader in NetApp. From a mainstream market perspective they have no real competition in primary NAS. In the last few months I've spoken to more than a dozen companies with petabytes of NetApp NAS, and they believe they have no real alternative. What most people don't talk about is that NAS solutions have proprietary file systems, so as your NAS environment grows more complex, it becomes harder to change platforms.

I believe the bough is about to break in the NAS arena. Storing files for the mainstream market had always been considered a necessary burden and a low priority, a storage application that doesn't require the same level of performance, reliability and scalability as other business applications. But now we're at a point of critical mass when the cost and complexity of managing these systems is making them a priority. Leading NAS systems are proprietary, difficult to manage, complex, and expensive to acquire and maintain, which is becoming an untenable situation.

Another variable is cloud storage, but I don't see any evidence that it will be adopted by more than a small percentage of storage users. If cloud storage is going to be a viable alternative, it will need a market leader to pave the way like EqualLogic did for iSCSI.

The multiple players staking out ground in the primary SAN storage market will continue to roll out their less-than-earthshaking innovations. While the server side of the data center is being reinvented, storage will press on with incremental progress but with no major technological leaps on the horizon.

BIO: Tony Asaro is senior analyst and founder of Voices of IT.

This was first published in December 2010

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