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Shopping for storage: One vendor or more?

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When to buy
Berube times his orders to coincide with the end of the vendor's fiscal quarter. "If I hit it right, I can get an extra 10% off," he explains. That discount is on top of whatever discount the professional negotiators had previously negotiated at the state and city levels, which typically start at 20% off list price. If he's doing a particularly large buy and hits the timing right, Berube does even better--perhaps 30% off the usual price.

By relying on the single-vendor relationship, Berube finds he'll get a better overall deal when buying storage systems consisting of components from multiple vendors, even though he might be able to buy the individual components for less. But there's a price, he's discovered, to making the individual pieces work together.

For example, the city recently purchased a virtual tape system consisting of an EMC Clariion disk with a third-party virtualization product as well as some other third-party components. "We could have negotiated for the pieces individually and saved, maybe, $15,000 over the turnkey package price our vendor offered," Berube says. But after figuring the cost of the professional services the city would have needed to integrate everything and then support it, "we would have paid a lot more in the long run and experienced a lot of finger-pointing by the different vendors whenever something failed," he says. The value of having one vendor assume responsibility for everything was

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worth paying more initially.

Avoiding vendor lock-in
The third part of the storage hat trick, after acquisition price and ongoing cost of ownership, is avoiding vendor lock-in. "The vendor's natural impulse [is] to try to achieve customer lock-in," says Passmore. Lock-in is abetted by the vendor's drive for product differentiation and the lack of standards and tools, which make it difficult for organizations to make storage products from multiple vendors work together.

Try as he might, Kilcourse couldn't avoid vendor lock-in. In the case of Longs Drugs, the company had storage from EMC, Hitachi Data Systems and IBM Corp. The crisis hit when Longs Drugs started to upgrade its storage. "We wanted to avoid buying new frames. We wanted the ability to upgrade components inside the frame, and we wanted the frame to support multiple devices, even from third parties," says Kilcourse. Longs Drugs finally standardized on Hitachi, which offered the most flexible storage--but that wasn't where the lock-in occurred.

The lock-in came later, at the storage management level. "You have to decide at what point you're willing to get locked in," says Kilcourse. He believes the only way to mitigate lock-in is through storage management software, which becomes a form of lock-in itself. "You want a flexible, standard storage management platform. You'll be locked into the storage management platform, but if you picked the software well, you'll have the most flexibility," he says. At the time, Longs Drugs chose Tivoli storage management. With a broad storage management framework, you can add storage from multiple vendors, which the staff can manage without having to acquire an entirely new set of skills.

Gartner came to a similar conclusion in its recommendation for organizations following the two-vendor storage strategy: "The trick to minimizing operational expenses is maintaining compatibility. In an ideal world, the arrays would have similar functionalities and compatible APIs ... SAN management, SRM [storage resource management], snapshot, backup and replication management tools would all use wizards for common look and feel, and would passively and actively manage both vendors' arrays. Finally, migration tools would provide transparent dynamic movement of volumes between the vendors' arrays."

This was first published in February 2006

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