Filling the storage information gap

Making technology choices is hard, but getting solid information about those technologies may be even tougher. And users are losing out.

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Making technology choices is hard, but getting solid information about those technologies may be even tougher. And users are losing out.

Having a choice is important, but it's also a double-edge sword. That's why on some level having a clear market leader makes life easier and safer for IT professionals. For example, you're probably using Cisco for your networking infrastructure; have a ton of Microsoft servers; and your server virtualization platform is more than likely VMware.

However, users evaluating storage systems don't have a single clear leader to choose from. Dell, EMC, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Hitachi, IBM, NetApp and Oracle all have multibillion dollar storage businesses. There are more than a dozen storage system vendors that can be considered "competitive," and more startups are popping up all the time.

In my travels I always ask IT professionals where they get their information when they have to make a storage decision. The three answers I consistently hear are from their peers, storage vendors and channel partners.

The information you get from vendors is obviously biased toward their own products. Channel sources are a bit less biased, but they also hitch their wagons to specific vendors. Talking to peers is considered the most valuable of the three methods, but it has limitations as environments and requirements usually differ from company to company. And it's not possible to be completely unbiased once you've taken the plunge and invested in a specific vendor's solution. With your peers, you get real-world perspectives based on first-hand experiences. But there are some important issues -- like optimization, best practices and application integration -- that are rarely discussed in detail even among peers.

If you've already decided to go down a specific path, you can get a ton of great insight from your IT vendors. However, depending on the size of the vendor and the number of products they have in their portfolio, vendors may not be able to answer your questions very effectively. I recently sat down with a vice president of IT, along with a storage vendor and their channel partner, to look over proposed storage solutions. I happen to know the product extremely well and it was alarming to me how little the sales people and systems engineers for both the vendor and channel partner knew about it -- and it was their flagship product.

There's often a disconnect between many vendors' corporate marketing and sales organizations, and information gets lost in translation. In some cases, the corporate folk think they have the answer and don't understand why the field doesn't get it. On the other hand, the field is frustrated because corporate doesn't listen to them and the solution that was rolled out wasn't what they were asking for or needed. In the midst of this confusion, the customer and channel partner get squeezed.

The problem is that people will make decisions despite lacking information or having too much misinformation. I spoke with a user who was implementing an archive storage strategy using a tier 1 storage system. But the system couldn't scale to the capacity levels the firm needed and it was way overpriced for this type of use case. That's like buying a sports car to haul dirt. That kind of decision doesn't help anyone, as the user ends up disappointed and the vendor will be seen in a bad light that might cost them a long-term relationship.

There's still a lot of confusion among users about technologies such as thin provisioning, storage virtualization, intelligent storage tiering, primary storage deduplication, scale-out storage and cloud storage. Users may even get tripped up when it comes to some storage fundamentals. I worked with one company with petabytes of storage that went from using RAID 10 to RAID 5 across all of its arrays and netted more than $100 million in savings. Why wasn't this done sooner? Because their vendor told them their performance would suffer. Guess what? Performance hasn't been an issue.

How do we fill the information gap? Unfortunately, there's no easy answer. I believe the only way to truly solve the problem is through a consortium or community of IT professionals who will share information, insights and best practices, as well as sponsor ongoing research to dig deeply into new technologies and products. Done right, this group could emerge as the single most powerful entity in the industry and could have a legitimate influence on the future of IT.

But as long as users are guarded about their IT "secrets" and are reluctant to share their best practices and hard-earned insights, creating such an organization may be an impossible task. It would have to be well organized, planned and funded to make a radical change, not just act as a message board where a handful of people play question/answer ping-pong with one another. If something isn't done, the information gap will persist and IT professionals will continue to do the same heavy lifting year after year with the same mixed results.

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

This was first published in October 2010

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