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The storage industry has frequently made me cranky with its unfortunate tendency to cling to outmoded ways of doing business. But I've recently seen some hopeful developments.

Take this month's cover subject--clustering. On the heels of a sudden infatuation with modular storage, clustering is yet another development signaling that storage vendors have finally learned what the rest of the computer industry knew about 15 years ago. Big, monolithic devices have their place, but, basically, the future of computing is about getting lots of small, cheap things to work together.

A more subtle change is taking place in the way you'll buy storage. More and more storage, even sophisticated stuff, will be sold through indirect channels--resellers, integrators and so on. The little guys that have prospered through the SAN/NAS boom have to do it, and the big guys are now finding that they do, too. Fundamentally, this is a good thing. The big guys will have to ease off the account control pedal a bit and put more effort into making their products easier to install and maintain. The channel is more likely to hedge its bets and provide more choice.

That's the good news. The challenge for storage managers will be to raise the quality of the channel. Not all storage resellers are world-class experts on the gear they sell. Dealing with a host of newly signed-up resellers means that you have to ask more questions:

  • How many technicians

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  • does the reseller have who are qualified in the technology you're buying? Ask how many hours the relevant personnel have trained on the product you're buying, whether they have the appropriate certifications and so on.
  • Can they provide you with three reference installations? If you're the first, think twice and then ask for some financial consideration--you deserve it.
  • Who's standing behind the product and under what circumstances? The last thing you need is for the reseller and the manufacturer to point fingers at each other.

IT organizations have developed a long list of practices for dealing with integrators and resellers in other technology domains, and those practices will need to become more common when buying storage. For example, many shops won't use the same consultants for design and implementation. Risk-sharing, co-development and many other progressive practices have been tried by firms trying to get more out of their relationships with channel companies. Talk to your counterparts in systems or networking, or the CIO, and see what the culture of doing business with the channel has been in your company and industry.

Being a reseller or systems integrator is a tough business, and there's long been tension between their desire to move boxes and their ability to provide high, value-added services at affordable prices. That tension will be pronounced in storage, where there are very few independent service firms.

But take heart. The emergence of a storage channel is a reaction to you--the people who've been demanding more affordable products, more choices and more flexibility from vendors. To be successful, the channel will also have to respond to your need for qualified technical help, progressive relationships and continued choice.

This was first published in April 2005

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