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Appliances add options -- and decisions -- for storage purchasers

We’re seeing many different vendor initiatives for appliances or special purpose applications that run inside storage systems. In contrast to general purpose storage systems, these appliances consist of special purpose applications running on servers. The most common type of appliance is for backup. Another type includes archive systems.

For backup systems, appliances add deduplication and compression to reduce the amount of data stored, and replication for making disaster copies. Some integrated appliances include the media server software preloaded on the backup application.

With archive systems, value add features can include data movement software with a policy engine for selective controls and replication, functions for retention management, a search function with indexing, and compliance features such as immutability, audit trails, and security.

The value of these appliances comes from the integration enabling all the pieces to work together effectively for quick deployment, usually by IT staff. The appliance should be supported as a single system rather than independent elements. (If that’s not the case, that can be a problem.) The system may even be less expensive than putting the individual elements together.

The trade-offs of using general purpose storage with servers and software versus an integrated appliance are well understood. One issue raised is who has the authority to make the purchase. The decision for improving or deploying new backup technology may be with the backup team and selecting an appliance or system whose primary usage is for backup may be much easier than using some the primary storage under someone else’s control. The same holds true for archiving, which is usually a separate initiative with separate funding and not part of the backup area of responsibility in most large IT organizations.

The line between these trade-offs and roles blurs as vendors begin to offer storage systems with the ability to run selected applications on the storage controller. Now IT is faced with another choice: the purchase of a storage system that can have an application loaded in addition to the storage control function with embedded software. Implemented as a virtual machine in storage, it really is a similar choice to using general purpose storage with the application on a server, only now the server is in the storage system.

This raises issues around flexibility, support, customization, and potential lock-in. The organizational boundaries for purchasing will still hold and be the determining factor in many environments. But, it is another option to consider.

The option may be exploited effectively by system integrators and resellers who can put together solutions that combine several functions that would have been multiple appliances before. With service and support, this is an opportunity for integrators and VARs to deliver more value to their customers.

Appliances, storage systems with the option to load application software, and general purpose storage with separate servers and applications are all possibilities. Not all fit the needs of an IT organization. It’s important to understand the basic needs or problems to be solved, look at the options and then develop a strategy that will deliver the best overall solution.

(Randy Kerns is Senior Strategist at Evaluator Group, an IT analyst firm).

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