Mettle, muddle and marketecture
By Jon William Toigo
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Listening to storage vendors these days can be a downright depressing experience. They boo-hoo about dwindling market demand for their products, wring their hands over the impact of quarterly earnings reports on the value of their employee stock options, and generally whine like so many punch-drunk Terry Malloys that, in another time and another place, "I coulda been someone, I coulda been a contender."
To the extent that I sympathize with them at all, it is only in one respect. Five years ago, when storage got hot, many storage guys got their first taste of stardom. They were invited to the best parties and had more than enough scratch to throw a few blowouts of their own. They were suddenly viewed as "sexy" and, probably for the first time in their lives, had no problems getting dates on Friday night. They were suddenly somebodies.
Last February, when the bottom dropped out of the supposedly "unshakeable" storage sector, and these guys couldn't make the payments on those SUVs and Porsche Boxsters parked in front of their $2000 per month efficiency apartments in the San Francisco Bay Area, well, life got hard.
Going from glitz and glamour to pink slip parties, where no one gets rich except for the event host -- a job placement firm -- has got to be a let down. I can sympathize with that.
On the other hand, I have to remind myself that markets are cyclical. Bears and bulls. Companies with proven staying power have weathered at least one full market cycle. For many techs, this is the first turn of the wheel and it is testing the mettle of both management and staff . . .
Mettle or muddle through?
Hard times have always been a test of cool. At the height of the bombing of Britain during the last world war, Prime Minister Churchill went on the radio and talked about "the broad sunlit uplands of Europe" -- referring to a future day when the calamity would be over and the Age of Aquarius would descend upon the land. That's mettle.
Of course, "Churchillian steel" might seem to be a bit much to expect from a bunch of LUN carvers and I/O jocks. Then again, I recall a story that a friend at a major disk drive manufacturer once told me. Seems there was this fellow who labored in obscurity over much of his professional life to engineer a molecule that could serve as a liquid bearing for a disk drive. Disk drives rotate pretty fast these days ? 10,000 RPM or more ? but the remarkable thing is that a small drop of this engineer's lubricant enables the drive platters to whir about their daily business while permanently enclosed inside a drive housing for five years (or more) without wearing out.
For all his efforts, the total amount of lubricant needed per disk drive is miniscule and the requirements of the entire industry were filled by just a couple of 50 gallon drums of the stuff. Unless the engineer sold his creation by the milliliter, he probably never made much money from the invention ? important though it was. That is close to something I would call mettle.
The friend who told me the story is also a remarkable character, though consideration of his modesty prevents me from disclosing his name. He labors within the disk maker's R&D lab trying to push the envelope of current hard disk capacity limits through the use of laser-assisted read/write head positioning technology. Working with the patience of an old Swiss craftsman developing a fine watch movement, he is meticulously crafting a laser-guided actuator arm that can exactly position the read/write head above a data track in the disk media that is only a few atoms wide. The guiding philosophy of the work is that it doesn't matter how much data you can write to a disk platter, if you can't see to read it. Interesting metaphor, since my friend is totally blind.
Mettle meets marketecture
My working definition for mettle includes words like tenacity, hard work, and common sense. It shows in the work habits of those for whom the achievement of a goal is its own reward, and the obstacles encountered along the way are just a normal and expected part of the real world.
Unfortunately, that kind of mettle doesn't exactly run rampant in the storage community. Data storage is, after all, a small part of a huge tech industry that has elevated "marketecture" -- misrepresentation, distortion and hype by vendor marketing departments around otherwise solid technical and architectural achievements -- to the status of fine art.
Why, for example, did the industry push SANs to market despite the known limitations of Fibre Channel? When the lack of switch and HBA interoperability, dearth of in-band manageability, and outrageous cost of ownership of these contraptions began to make early adopters cry uncle, the universal response from vendors was a smile reminiscent of so many defense contractors peddling otherwise worthless weapons systems for their lucrative, long term, spare parts contracts.
Queried on these issues, vendors responded rather smugly that they were quite aware of the limitations of FC, but that it was the only game in town. Like 1920s gangsters, they found a cadre of analysts and press folks to help them grow their territories, and, for a brief time, it was "Chicago Rules" all over again.
But, just as Al Capone learned by the end of his short-lived career, it is the consumer who ultimately rules. Today, the same vendors who forced the technical equivalent of bad beer and protection rackets on their storage customers are finding that the tables have been turned. Many consumers are waiting on their storage purchases, not because they want to harness the next big technical advancement, but because they know that the price will drop 20 percent next month, or even next week, as vendors have fire sales and liquidate their inventories.
Many of these same vendors are trying to make it through the current hard times in the storage industry through muddle, rather than mettle. You can hear it in their marketing messages and read it in their press releases. A recent email from a disgruntled reader, who happened to be a senior engineer for a market share-leading storage vendor, assailed one of my columns for its "lack of accuracy" in depicting the interoperability mess that SANs confront. He said that a good portion of his day was being "used up unnecessarily" to answer customer inquiries regarding SAN manageability issues raised in my work. Didn't I know, he asked, that the major storage vendors had just recently made a "public statement" agreeing that they would work together on developing interoperability standards? Was I unaware of SNIA's Storage Solutions Forum that had been recently created to advance the cause of compatible configurations? Surely, these testified to the integrity of the vendor community and the advancement of SAN standards.
Poor guy was desperate, but I couldn't bring myself to validate his faith in his company's marketing pronouncements. Assurances have been given before -- without results.
The bottom line is that a Bear market is a buyer's market. The word to storage marketers is that the customer is wise to you. Surviving this cycle is going to require real mettle, not muddle.
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About the author: Jon William Toigo has authored hundreds of articles on storage and technology and is our searchStorage.com resident expert on storage management issues. Toigo is also the author of storage books, including, "The Holy Grail of Data Storage Management."