Storage should get more interesting in 2010

Despite the buzz about solid state and storage for VMware environments, 2009 wasn't a particularly banner year for standout storage technologies. Here's hoping the real storage innovations will come in 2010.

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There was plenty of buzz about solid state and VMware in 2009, but here's hoping that the real storage innovations will come in 2010.

It could be one of those "out with the old, in with the new" things, but with the calendar turning a page and our economy begin to shrug off the effects of a numbing recession, I think it's a good time to look at the state of the data storage industry.

We've seen aggressive sales promotions like the "cash for clunkers" discounts on new storage arrays that a few vendors have been pushing. And I'm sure there are plenty of storage managers who are reveling in the moment where it looks like the vendors' backs are up against the wall for a change. But it's more instructive to look at how product lines have been shaped or reshaped over the last year or so.

Our Purchasing Intentions surveys have shown that over the last few years storage buyers' criteria for selecting particular disk system vendors over others has shifted. Once upon a time it was strictly a features game, with storage managers finding a way to come up with the extra bucks to buy the products with the most impressive and useful feature sets. But the key reasons for sticking with a vendor -- or switching to a new one -- are beginning to shift in favor of criteria like tech support, familiarity with a vendor and, yes, price.

That shift seems to have put storage vendors in something of a bind. While they struggle to differentiate themselves from the competition, the products themselves are looking more and more like commodities; highly sophisticated commodities perhaps, but commodities nonetheless. Storage buyers expect a comprehensive set of features (for them it's a given) and are looking beyond what's built into the hardware or software.

For a lot of vendors, this has caused something of a race to the middle. They sometimes endeavor more to match their competition than to beat it. In this "Be like Mike" environment, we're seeing less effort exerted to be a leader in a particular technology, and a lot more energy spent trying to avoid being the vendor that lacks something on their checklist of features or options.

A couple of examples stand out. With solid state being touted as the future of storage (led by EMC Corp.), storage vendors have been scurrying to get solid-state drives (SSDs) on their product lists. But, for the most part, all they've really done is sign up with a solid-state OEM that can provide flash storage in a form factor and with a compatible protocol so they can simply plug it into their existing arrays. Are there benefits? Sure, but they could be even greater if the flash drives were integrated in a way that took advantage of their unique technology. But there hasn't been much of that, and what we've seen so far is vendors just playing catch-up to try to keep the playing field level.

Another example: VMware Inc. is a juggernaut that's not only putting the squeeze on its direct competition but turning the rest of IT -- especially storage -- on its ear. Server virtualization puts significant new demands on storage systems, but the response from the storage industry has been fairly tepid. You'd be hard-pressed to find a storage vendor not boasting that it's "VMware certified," but it's quickly become a fairly hollow claim. I don't know what a vendor has to do to get VMware's stamp of approval, but I bet it's roughly equivalent to having a pulse and probably doesn't involve much more than being able to present storage capacity to a virtual server in some reasonable manner. It looks like the storage gang has been content to wait for VMware to smooth out the storage wrinkles, which it has apparently done to a great degree with vSphere (see "Everything you need to know about vSphere and data storage").

There are, of course, some vendors that are still innovating despite the overall tenor of the storage market. Compellent Technologies has recently received some much-deserved attention for its Data Progression software, which looks like the biggest development in years in the otherwise moribund information lifecycle management (ILM) market. Kudos should also go to Symantec Corp. for its OpenStorage (OST) API, which -- when hardware vendors add support for it -- will provide more capable and comprehensive management of disk-based backups from within Veritas NetBackup.

Those are just a couple of examples, and I'm sure I'm slighting a few other companies. But vendors that continue to pursue innovation seem fewer these days.

Maybe I'm being a little too hard on the data storage industry; maybe I expect too much during a time when nearly all vendors have seen sales dip, and it isn't a sin to just try to maintain the status quo until things start looking up again. But rushing to the middle of the pack with cookie-cutter feature sets doesn't make a lot of sense either. In storage, as in much of IT, it takes a long time for things to change. Years pass before storage managers swap out arrays or switches or backup apps. Things move slowly. Slow enough for vendors to take the time to develop some truly unique applications and features.

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

* Click here for a sneak peek at what's coming up in the February 2010 issue.

This was first published in January 2010
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