Storage Bin: Behind the scenes

Some small startups are smart, and they're responsible for much of today's storage innovation. But the storage giants might be even smarter—they're selling the startups' products.

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Behind every great man is a greater woman. Behind every great actor is a director. Behind every great quarterback is a coach. Behind many big storage deals with big storage vendors is the little-known startup that actually made the big vendor's products usable in the customer's shop.

Pixar used tons of Network Appliance (NetApp) gear making Toy Story, Finding Nemo and all those other fantastic mega-data-generating movies. EMC never had any success breaking into that account nor did Dell for that matter. Enter little-known Ibrix. Its clustered distributed file system let EMC satisfy Pixar's need for collaboration without the "single pipe" bandwidth issues it was limited to with NAS. Instead, Pixar built an 1,800 node mega-cluster (yes, 1,800 nodes--one cluster) that used Ibrix software to give every node shared access to tons of SAN bandwidth on the EMC back end.

NetApp did the same thing to EMC. It won a big deal at an all-EMC shop because it offered some simple global namespace functionality from a goofy little company called NuView. The NuView component was probably less than 1% of the total deal, but without it, I doubt NetApp would have won.

How about a giant company that I can't name in Texas? Mike Ruettgers, chairman of the board of directors at EMC, sits on this firm's board. This unnamed company is a big EMC shop, but an even bigger NetApp shop. EMC never got any NAS traction in this firm until little Signiant came about. Signiant makes replication/data migration software that works on everybody's stuff. EMC won NAS business because Signiant enabled it to.

How about KVS? The little e-mail archiving company (gobbled up by Veritas, which was then gobbled up by Symantec) enabled truckloads of EMC Centera sales. How ironic.

Softek is so good at data migrations that dozens of companies have bought tons of less-expensive hardware and saved millions of dollars by getting rid of off-lease gear on time and online.

The innovation and determination of those so readily dismissed by the giants as inferior is often the root cause of some of the big dogs' biggest wins. I fear the day will come when there will be only four vendors. I fear the storage business will turn into the automobile industry circa 1970, or the accounting industry of, well, today.

I like the ability to make a choice, even if I make the most conservative of choices. I hate being told I can't do something, even if I never had any intentions of doing it. It also bodes well for the industry to keep choices alive. As long as we feel like we can decide against buying from a big guy, we tend to buy from the big guy. It's when we feel boxed in that we act in defiance.

Plus, if the big guys gobble up or crush all the little guys, there won't be enough customers for me and I'll have to get a real job. And that, my friends, won't be good for anybody.

This was first published in October 2005
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