Feature

Startups and standards

Ezine

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Forget about storage if you want a tech field that's easy to navigate, has a relatively set roster of players and moves along at a leisurely pace. Even gnarled veterans of the storage game know how hard it is to stay on top of all that's going on. Getting--and keeping--a firm grasp on the technologies is tough enough, but knowing what to buy and when to buy it is even trickier.

So how do you deal with an ever-changing industry that seems to get its steam from little startups trying not to get trampled by the handful of giants dominating storage? You could play it safe and stick with one of the Goliaths, but with so much of the really innovative technology coming from the little guys these days, you just might miss out on the products that best address your storage needs. It's a safe choice, perhaps, but one that could get you even deeper into a single vendor's pocket and maybe cost you more in the long run.

Or you could kill some time and kick the tires of that new WAFS appliance or e-mail archiver you've been eyeing, and wait to see if one of the leviathans scoops it up. Maybe it's not such a big gamble when you consider how many of the small, innovative vendors have been gobbled up by the big boys over the last couple of years. In fact, considering the rate of recent acquisitions, it looks like buying a startup has become "instant R&D" for the major vendors.

Whether the buyout scenario bodes well or ill for storage technology remains to be seen. If the prospect

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of getting snapped up by an industry heavyweight doesn't appeal to future entrepreneurs, the steady stream of smart stuff coming from startups could slow to a trickle. And major vendors that have come to rely on the startups' innovation could be caught with their R&D pants down.

Of course, you could roll the dice and take a chance on the startup with the "gee-whiz" technology. Despite its often whirlwind pace, the storage industry is still a pretty conservative affair, so much so that we still call a company a "startup" even if it's four or five years old. Those companies might lack the critical mass of users to shed the startup label, but they've often spent those four or five years fine-tuning their products. So, if the technology is solid and meets your needs--and you've checked the company's vital signs--it's not as risky a move as it might seem. Really good technology isn't likely to disappear, even if it eventually ends up in the hands of a bigger player.

But there's an even larger issue than taking a chance with a small company. I'm going to connect a couple of dots here that, admittedly, might seem a little far apart. But the difference between a startup struggling to make it alone vs. a startup that ends up on a major vendor's lunch menu can have an effect that reaches beyond the two companies cutting a deal. It could also be the difference between taking a step toward real working standards or throwing up yet another roadblock to effective standards.

To a startup, standards can ease entry into competitive fields and provide a degree of security. From a neutral corner, a startup can build from the ground up to leverage standards and ensure interoperability with a range of other vendors' products. And even with the sluggish pace of adoption of SMI-S and other storage standards, being standards compliant can still help gain a toehold in the marketplace. It's therefore no surprise that there's been more standards-oriented activity from startups. But to more established vendors, standards could represent a threat to their proprietary technologies.

No conspiracy theories here, but sweeping up the startups that promote standards is a pretty expedient way to thwart those very standards. And there's also no illusions that startup always equates to standards. Still, given the source of much of the innovation in storage lately, it might not be a bad idea to give the little guys a chance.

This was first published in February 2006

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