Storage redux: Purchase plans reviving

Our latest Storage Purchasing Intentions survey suggests that there may be a glimmer of hope for the economy based on storage managers purchase plans.

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"It ain't over till it's over," said Yogi Berra. While the persistent economic doldrums aren't over yet, storage managers may finally be seeing a brighter future.

Storage managers may finally be seeing a light at the end of the economic tunnel or, as the old joke goes, maybe it's an oncoming train. But after a train wreck of an economy, it looks like storage budgets may be creeping back to something resembling normalcy. Of course, "normalcy" is a relative term, as those budgets are still hovering in negative territory.

Last spring when the full impact of the recession was starting to sink in, storage managers were feeling the same sting that hobbled virtually every business. In that earlier edition of our Storage Purchasing Intentions survey, data storage managers reported that their 2009 storage budgets were likely to be 1.9% less than 2008's. While that might not seem like a huge dip, it did represent a nearly five point drop from what they reported in the fall of 2008. And it was the first time in seven years that we saw a negative number when we asked storage managers to compare their budgets year over year. In our most recent survey, conducted in early September, the picture is a little brighter. Compared with 2008, storage budgets are a mere 0.4% lower -- not back into positive numbers, but certainly more encouraging than six months ago. Overall, 30% of those surveyed reported decreased budgets, 28% said their budgets would remain flat and almost 33% said their budgets increased.

The spring-to-fall shift in budget levels and planned spending is a common occurrence. Managers appear to be more cautious in the spring when estimating what they'll have to spend for the year; by autumn, many of them see their budgets rise a bit. New projects, unexpected expenses and newfound funds all seem to contribute to this annual swing. In sheer dollars, the average storage budget reported was $2.9 million, which is the same figure as last spring. However, some very large budgets tend to skew the average upward, as 57% of respondents reported budgets less than $1 million.

About the survey

The Storage magazine/SearchStorage.com Purchasing Intentions survey is fielded twice a year; this is the seventh year the survey has been conducted. Storage magazine subscribers are invited to participate in the survey, which gathers information related to storage managers' purchasing plans for a variety of storage product categories. This edition had 826 qualified respondents across a broad spectrum of industries, with the average company size measured as having revenue of $1.5 billion.

Still cautious and coping with capacity

The survey results suggest that, rather than slashing and burning their way through their storage budgets, storage managers are more likely to couple a "trim here, trim there" approach with newer technology implementations to stem costs.

Regardless of budget size, funds are allocated in the familiar proportions that we've seen over the years, with disk system expenses gobbling up the biggest chunk (39%) of the overall budget. One might expect that as disk prices have dropped significantly over that period, the percentage that disk represents would also have proportionately diminished. But the "x factor" here is the need for new capacity; so as capacity demands soar, users need to buy more disks.

Click here to view a PDF regarding storage budgets and disk capacity.

The need for new capacity hasn't let up, although this survey's numbers suggest that storage managers might get a little needed relief through the rest of the year. On average, companies will be adding 34 TB of new disk capacity, a fairly hefty figure, but down significantly from last spring's 43 TB (although larger companies are still looking to add an average of 68 TB). It appears that data storage managers have made some adjustments to deal with capacity demands, like employing tools such as thin provisioning, compression and data deduplication to make better use of already installed capacity and perhaps forestall some new purchases. Of course, they may simply have less money to spend, causing some projects to get pushed into next year or beyond.

When storage managers do make disk purchases, they're more likely to try to fill in the capacity of their existing arrays than opt for completely new systems. Thirty-seven percent said their primary disk expenditures would be for new disks for old systems. We've seen this "build out vs. buy new" trend for the past three years; it will be interesting to see if it shifts back to new system purchases as installed gear approaches its end of life or end of lease.

For those planning to buy new storage systems, midrange products will figure into the buying plans of nearly 50% of respondents. Although Fibre Channel (FC) systems are still the top choice, iSCSI continues to make gradual inroads; 12% said they'll buy iSCSI this year, up a couple of points from last spring, while other disk system categories stayed flat or lost a little ground.

iSCSI systems are becoming fixtures in the data centers of all sizes of companies. Among our respondents, the average disk capacity that they have installed is 75 TB, and most of that is on FC SANs (62%) or network-attached storage (NAS) systems (63%). But 35% said they're using iSCSI storage now, up a few points compared with last spring's or last fall's numbers. And that number looks like it will be augmented, as 43% said they plan to or have deployed iSCSI systems this year. That's approximately 3 points higher than last fall and the highest number we've seen to date. The way iSCSI systems are being used also reflects the technology's maturity; 47% said they'll use their iSCSI systems for mission-critical apps, the highest number we've seen to date. For smaller companies, iSCSI has taken on an even greater role, with 61% using it for critical applications (also a new high).

Among the storage vendors respondents purchased from in 2009, EMC Corp. is still top dog, but its lead over Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. has dwindled by a few points; IBM and NetApp Inc. round out the top five. The primary reason for selecting a particular disk vendor is still the features and functions the product offers (29%) but economic times have had an effect on selection criteria. The second-most-cited selection criteria is that a vendor already supplies other technology to the company (23%); the comfort factor certainly figures in, but it's also likely that a vendor with its foot firmly in the door might cut some special deals for storage purchases. Price, traditionally a lesser selection factor, is up to fourth at 16%, just a point behind tech support.

Top 5

Who have you purchased, or plan to purchase, a disk system from this year?
EMC 37%
Dell 29%
HP 28%
IBM 23%
NetApp 23%

Who have you purchased, or plan to purchase, storage networking switches from this year?
Cisco 48%
Brocade 41%
QLogic 9%
Dell 4%
HP 3%

Who have you purchased, or plan to purchase, tape backup hardware from in 2009?
IBM 22%
HP 22%
Dell 20%
Quantum 17%
Sun 16%

Who will be your primary vendor for backup software in 2010?
Symantec 42%
IBM 12%
EMC 10%
CommVault 9%
HP 5%

New storage technologies gain ground

Solid-state storage is the current darling of the storage world, garnering the lion's share of the new tech buzz. For many, however, solid state is still suffering from the "terrible toos" -- too new, too untested and too expensive. But our current survey turned up some interesting results: 8% of respondents said they're using solid-state drives (SSDs), with another 3% planning implementations this year. Thirty-five percent are evaluating the technology.

Of those using SSDs, 48% have them in their arrays, 25% are using SSDs as direct-attached storage (DAS) in servers, and approximately 14% report implementations in their arrays and servers. Apparently, the efforts of solid-state drive vendors to counter high price-per-gigabyte claims with more performance-oriented comparisons to hard drives are paying off. And SSD users may also be reaping the benefits of much lower power consumption, although power conservation still isn't top of mind with most data storage managers. Thirty-nine percent of those surveyed said energy efficiency is either the most important criteria or a major factor in choosing an array, essentially the same percentage reported last fall.

Higher-speed storage networking protocols are also nudging SSD and dedupe for the storage spotlight, with 10 Gbps Ethernet (10 GbE) and 8 Gbps FC now available. And while changes to the networking infrastructure are usually painfully slow developments, there's been some noteworthy movement toward these two new protocols.

Currently, the most widely used storage networking protocols are 4 Gbps FC (48%) and 1 Gbps Ethernet (33%). But 8 Gbps FC is used by 14% of respondents, with 13% reporting that they've made the move to 10 GbE.

The value of virtualization

Server virtualization is ubiquitous, with 84% of respondents noting that they've virtualized all or some of their servers. And the effects of server virtualization on storage have become key issues for many of those installations. Forty-nine percent of those surveyed chose Fibre Channel for their virtual server storage, but iSCSI is gaining in popularity. Last fall, only 12% said they hook their virtual servers up to iSCSI storage systems; this time, 18% noted their preference for the technology. In smaller companies, the iSCSI preference is even stronger, with 25% indicating they use it for their virtual servers. (DAS is often dismissed as a viable storage solution for virtual servers, but 11% of those surveyed said DAS is their choice.)

Backup has been the most prominent storage pain point for virtualized server environments. Forty-four percent of our survey takers said they use traditional backup software and methods for their virtual servers, putting agents as required on each virtual machine (VM). VMware Consolidated Backup (VCB), touted as a backup method to save on software licensing costs, is used by only 20% of respondents -- a somewhat surprising figure as VCB has been so widely endorsed. VM-specific backup products, like PHD Virtual Technologies' esXpress, Veeam Software's Veeam Backup & Replication and Vizioncore Inc.'s vRanger Pro, have also drawn a lot of attention, but only 6% of those surveyed said they were using products like these in their VM backup operations.

The biggest problems users have run into when backing up virtual servers is backing up too much data, cited by 27% of respondents, and possibly linked to their use of traditional backup methods. Twenty-three percent said the VM backup is just too complicated, while 17% indicated that access to individual files (a frequent issue with VM backups) was their biggest source of frustration.

Although outstripped by server virtualization in terms of implementations, storage virtualization is inexorably gaining favor in storage shops. Among the reasons for the relatively slow uptake for storage virtualization is that it's considerably harder (and more expensive) to do than server virtualization and brings with it the ominous "vendor lock-in" that looms with most virtualization choices.

Still, 31% report virtualizing at least some of their storage, which is up from 26% last fall -- a fairly significant jump of 5 percentage points in a short time. Block storage is still the initial candidate of choice for virtualization, with 18% of those surveyed having virtualized all of their block storage and 61% indicating they've virtualized some of their block storage. Approximately 7% of respondents have virtualized all of their file storage, while 44% have virtualized some file storage. These are perhaps still modest numbers considering how long virtualization products have been available, but the numbers cited here all represent increases vs. last spring.

More efficient backup operations

Space-saving storage technologies, most notably data deduplication and compression, are still key parts of storage managers' efficiency arsenals for coping with increasing capacities and declining budgets.

Each year we see that tape figures less and less prominently in most companies' storage operations, but that trend also illustrates the efforts of storage managers to squeeze their data down to more manageable sizes. Last spring, we saw the lowest number ever (19%) for respondents who said they planned to increase their use of tape and, conversely, the highest percentage yet (29%) for those who plan to decrease their reliance on tape. Those numbers moderated a bit in the current survey, but the trend is clear, although 80% say all or some of their backup data will eventually find its way to tape (down from 86% two years ago).

Even among those respondents who have already bought or plan to buy a tape library in 2009, most are opting for smaller libraries. The average number of slots in the tape libraries they plan to purchase was 109, which is slightly higher than the 101 reported last spring, but still the second lowest number we've seen. But declining slot numbers have a positive side as they point to greater tape library efficiencies, most notably from the use of newer drives. Forty-nine percent of respondents indicated their new libraries would have LTO-4 drives that deliver higher capacity and speed, as well as encryption. Interest in encryption is also starting to translate into actions, with 51% of those surveyed saying they're encrypting at least some backup data, a 7 point gain over last fall. And, once again, encryption ranked second among the newer technologies that respondents plan to implement or evaluate this year (see "Top 10 techs in 2009 implementation/evaluation plans," below).

Click here to view "Top 10 techs in 2009 implementation/evaluation plans," as well as a PDF of other purchasing charts.

Of course, disk is de rigueur for backup operations these days, and storage managers will continue to invest in disk-to-disk (D2D) technologies that can improve efficiency. Overall D2D spending appears to be bouncing back from last spring; only 10% said they'll decrease D2D spending (vs. 13% last spring), while 44% plan to increase spending (vs. 34% in the spring). These are positive signs not only for backup vendors, but for beleaguered backup administrators.

Most shops (43%) have integrated disk into their backup systems as a file system-based target or cache; virtual tape libraries (VTLs) are the second most popular approach (26%). In our most recent survey, 35% of respondents said they'll add file system targets to their backup environments, while 24% will opt for VTLs. That figure represents a modest resurgence for that technology.

But the big story is still deduplication. Twenty-one percent of respondents are using dedupe (the highest number we've recorded), and 26% have added it or plan to this year. That, too, is new high for our survey. As far as budgetary considerations go, dedupe is a priority, with 38% planning to increase their dedupe spending (up 8 points from last spring) and only 6% anticipating reduced spending.

Continuous data protection (CDP), another space and time saver, is used by 12% of respondents, just 1 point shy of the highest mark recorded for CDP last spring. Sixteen percent plan to implement CDP this year, also just 1 point lower from the previous high.

The volume around "cloud backup" has been turned up considerably in the past year. While it's still more hype than happening among our respondents, the economy has tweaked interest and purchases. Last spring, we saw a big jump in those looking to trim backup costs by using outsourced or online services for backup when 21% reported using some kind of backup service. In the most recent survey, those numbers have trailed off a bit, with 19% using cloud backup. But use of some specialized backup services -- for desktop/laptop files and databases -- has actually increased slightly.

Belts still tightened

For most data storage managers, battling a storage budget that never seems to stretch far enough isn't new, but that annual grind may have helped them weather the most recent economic storms. Storage vendors have also made their contributions with efficiency-oriented products and technologies that seemed to come onto the scene at just the right time. One thing seems certain: Confronted by capacity demands and the need to protect more and more data -- with fewer funds to do it all -- storage managers have proven their resourcefulness once again.

BIO: Rich Castagna (rcastagna@storagemagazine.com) is editorial director of the Storage Media Group.

This was first published in October 2009

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