Losing my religion with data storage vendors

Some data storage vendors seem out of touch with the reality of what's going on in data center environments and what kinds of products IT truly needs.

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Some data storage vendors seem out of touch with the reality of what's actually going on in our data center environments and what kinds of products IT truly needs.

I am convinced that R.E.M.'s song "Losing My Religion" is an earworm -- one of those tunes that, once you hear it, you can't get it out of your head. I found myself humming it recently as I listened to a data storage vendor executive deliver a pitch to a room of resellers. The tune is now stuck on repeat in my mental MP3 player.

The event was a channel partner conference hosted by an outstanding distributor. I spoke there early on, but the next day featured a manager with channel sales responsibilities from a vendor sponsor. He seemed to be churning a lot of vernacular in his attempts to (1) suggest that he had spilled a lot of blood in the same mud as the attendees, and (2) do what he could to energize a room of resellers regarding the struggling company's product list.

He told stories of how vulnerable competitors were to his company's "full technology stack," which included switches, servers and storage. His firm, he said, was pushing to replace gear in customer shops not only bearing the pesky branding of competitors, but also older gear sporting his own company's name. He explained that the data storage vendor was spending too much money maintaining older systems that could be better spent on innovating features on newer gear. He warned attendees that if the replacement of his older rigs wasn't pursued in earnest, he'd use the "nuclear option" -- making these "opportunities" available to anyone who wanted the business and the revenue. That was a big stick, but he offered carrots as well, including extra points on replacement deals, to further incentivize his channel folk.

The products the storage vendor now wants to sell are based on intellectual property from smaller storage companies acquired in the past few years. The vendor wants to combine these rigs with home-team-branded servers and switches to build homogeneous, single-vendor infrastructures at customer sites. Listening to the speaker's arguments, and knowing what I do after visiting many IT shops, I wasn't at all convinced that infrastructure rip-and-replace would sell in the current market. As a courtesy to my hosts, I kept those concerns to myself.

But the speaker must have anticipated that kind of reaction because he made a point of suggesting that the biggest obstacle to success were the technical folks at customer accounts whom he called "non-believers."

"They want to know how, exactly, you're going to deliver the value that you're promising with your array or server or switch," he said, looking genuinely pained.

I realized I was experiencing a sensation that's rather unusual for me: schadenfreude. I was actually enjoying the fellow's angst regarding those annoying IT managers who refuse to simply take data storage vendors at their word and actually want proof.

It dawned on me that I'm one of them: losing my religion as I listen to vendors trying to promote their one shiny new rig as a panacea for everything that ails storage. At that point, R.E.M.'s track loaded in my brain and began what has become a continuous playback loop.

I was eager to learn what advice the fellow would offer to help the audience work around those data center disbelievers. He posited the familiar nonsense from analysts depicting the world as two diverging trends: increasing amounts of data to store while budgets stay fixed or fall. To fill the void, he offered, you needed technology like his feature-encrusted array that delivers "effortless tiering," "thin provisioning" and other value-add software goodies, and will soon include a tier-zero flash layer (somewhat late to the party with that one, I thought). Such technology would dramatically reduce labor costs (e.g., the need to maintain trained storage geeks on staff), he asserted, although he didn't provide any real Opex or Capex numbers.

Missing from his pitch was any mention of tape. Despite the increasing capacities of tape and the growing popularity of the Linear Tape File System as a low-cost repository for seldom-accessed files -- a solution that would clearly address the aforementioned gap between data growth and budget -- nary a word about this tripped from the channel sales guy's lips.

R.E.M. droned louder in my head. I looked around the room to see a few heads nodding and smiling. Believers, I thought to myself. My question was whether any of the folks were what I would call "solution integrators."

In the late 1990s, I did a lot of work with solution integrators. These were companies that maintained technically competent and financially astute consulting teams who would seek to understand client requirements and constraints; sift through all the marketecture to identify kit that would most effectively meet current requirements while providing a cost-efficient pathway for growth; and deliver a strategy to the customer that represented the best fit of technology products to needs.

Those guys, true solution integrators, were worth their weight in gold. But they virtually disappeared following the market woes that hit the storage industry in 2001.

For those who weren't paying attention to market behavior in the post-dot-com era, the response of many data storage vendors when the bottom fell out of the supposedly unshakeable storage market was to take the most lucrative accounts away from their channel partners and bring them inside to be serviced by direct sales personnel. That made it impossible for resellers to afford to keep qualified and knowledgeable consulting folks on staff. Instead of being solution integrators with well-defined methodologies and pure vendor agnosticism, many resellers simply became order-takers for three letter companies.

Interestingly, one fellow at this event did raise his hand to ask whether selling hardware with value-add software was the right solution to a problem that seemed to come from data mismanagement. I was floored, and confess that I missed the exact wording of the gobbledygook answer provided by the speaker. We non-believers are like that.

However, reflecting on the query and on what it says about the possibility that true storage integrators may still be out there, I flash on the R.E.M. lyric: "I think I thought I saw you try."

About the author: 
Jon William Toigo is a 30-year IT veteran, CEO and managing principal of Toigo Partners International, and chairman of the Data Management Institute.

This was first published in August 2013

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