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"Our fear with NetApp was that with 50 servers connected to the disk array, there would be no way to differentiate a server with shares for a user's photo slideshow taking precedence over a mission-critical SQL server," he said. "At the time, Pillar was the first to offer class of service prioritization."
In some ways, Olson said, it seemed the big companies he had considered products from had followed Pillar in the months since his purchase, rather than the other way around.
"NetApp now offers class of service," he said, noting also that Pillar's rebranded replication product from Kashya Inc. had also swayed him to pick the startup's SAN months before EMC acquired the company.
"At the time, replicating data between a Clariion and a Symmetrix was hugely expensive and difficult to implement," Olson said. "Pillar and Kashya were more agnostic -- now EMC's moving in that direction, too."
"It's like trying to steer a 3,000 passenger cruise ship versus a 600 passenger cruise ship," said Olin College's director of technology and EqualLogic user Joanne Kossuth. "A big company doesn't always have the agility and flexibility for innovation."
Many people like having bundled products from big companies that can be a one-stop shop, Olson acknowledged, "but one size doesn't fit all people anymore."
Greg Schulz, founder and analyst with the StorageIO Group, says, as it has been in the past, buyers are becoming more savvy and seeking out value in products, and in some cases that means going with smaller or niche vendors.
A change, but not a sea change
However, Schulz said, "Greater traction in the market doesn't mean dominance -- and all the same hurdles still exist for startups, even in shops giving them more serious thought than they have in the past."
For example, Murzyn said that despite how impressed he's been with 3Par, he can't rule out EMC just yet.
"It's not just about their storage frame," he said. "EMC has a whole bunch of products that can complement it and each other. And it's hard to argue with $7 billion in the bank."
SilverPOP's Kelleher also acknowledged that 3Par's product isn't quite as polished as EMC's to begin with, especially in its management interface, which he said can be "buggy." For example, maps of where chunks of data are stored in the machine are not always accurate.
"They could add more features to their software packages," Kelleher said. "EMC is definitely ahead of them with that."
It's also still too soon to rule out price and personal attention as the reasons startups are getting ahead. Play.com's Spira said he was swayed to go with the startup because of the special attention he could get from a smaller company. "It's also about companies that will cooperate with us, rather than 'here's your box' and run away." (See Pillar's midrange array gets by on charm, Nov. 21.)
Meanwhile, not all of the technological advances some startups are credited with are universally beloved -- take thin provisioning. (See Thin provisioning: Blessing or curse?, May 12.)
And while some startups snuck in the door between upgrades of EMC's Clariion systems, EMC has come out with a new and improved Clariion since Kelleher and Spira made their purchasing decisions. A recent report by Bank of America analyst Keith Bachman said the new Clariion sales have been slower than expected, but it is too soon to tell what kind of momentum the new Clariion will ultimately have and how that may change the equation in the midrange. EMC spokesman Rick Lacroix declined to comment on Bachman's report, saying it was in a "quiet period" and "not able to comment on it or any speculation about our business in the quarter."
"In our experience, most customers prefer to invest in an established vendor that they know will be there to support them in the future," said EMC spokesperson Hadley Weinzerl in an email to SearchStorage.com. Customers are not just investing in technology, they invest in the service, support and engineering expertise."
"The startup community invests significant risk capital to focus on and find a better way of delivering a single product, and there will always be a bleeding edge customer who will leverage this product," said Ash Ashutosh, vice president and chief technologist, StorageWorks Division, HP, in an email. "In practically all cases though, both the customer and the startup hope that eventually a large supplier like HP can deliver the product and bring along the significant value of a reliable, proven supplier." Ashutosh founded AppIQ Inc., which HP acquired in Sept. 2005.
Hu Yoshida, CTO with HDS, weighed in, too. "HDS is always mindful of what the smaller companies are doing in the storage space. They have no legacy to protect ,so they are quick to shine a light on new customer requirements. After all, the SAN was not started by the major storage vendors. It was started by small companies like Gadzook, Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Vixel Corp., JNI Corp., etc., many of which are no longer in business. They proved the worth of that technology and as a result, the industry has benefited in better utilization of storage resources," he said.
NetApp did not respond to requests for comment by press time. IBM declined to comment for this story.
Beth Pariseau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.