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Consumer storage craze sweeps vendors

Update 12-19-07: Data Mobility Group’s Robin Harris has a very interesting take of his own on this phenomenon over on his blog, StorageMojo.  

Did you know Sun now has a Chief Gaming Officer? That EMC demonstrated its latest NAS product’s interface with the XBox 360 at its most recent EMC Innovation Day? That Cisco’s next big business plan involves not just the virtual data center but the digital home? That Seagate has its sights for expansion set on … automobiles?

SMBs have been a focus for still more storage companies, which have been busily overhauling low-end product lines. But they haven’t been all that successful. So why are all the big boys suddenly focused not only on small businesses, but on homes as well?

I put this question today to Forrester Research senior analyst Steph Balaouras on Instant Messenger. “In order to grow at the rates that Wall Street expects of them, [vendors] have to find new green field opportunities for their storage technologies,” she replied. “Small and medium businesses and consumer are two opportunities.”

Me: Is it just that other opportunities have been tapped or is there a particular trend making that a hot space too?

Balaouras: I think the enterprise has been tapped, it’s basically a struggle to maintain market share in that space and incremental opportunities in backup, disaster recovery, archiving etc. SMB and consumer are untapped.  I don’t believe the traditional storage vendors have the marketing expertise to penetrate the consumer market, however. This is a retail channel. The vendors have struggled with products appropriate to the SMB. 

Balaouras has no shortage of historical evidence to back her up, of course. Just look at the languishing of EMC’s low-end backup software, Retrospect, over the last few years, or the ill-fated Dell / EMC AX150. NetApp, too, has admitted its approach to midrange storage and the channel has been lackluster in the past. Dell is currently groveling to EqualLogic channel partners in the hope of shoring up its midrange storage business, and IBM is on its second low-end iSCSI array offering in as many years. And that’s just for the midrange and low end of the business market, let alone the consumer space.

Then again, it’s not hard to see how stories like Apple’s with the iPod and iPhone are too tantalizing for technology companies to resist. Apple’s example shows it can be done–it takes lots of design genius and guts and the right timing, but it can be done. Meanwhile, if you’ve been paying attention to enterprise IT this year, you already know that “edge” devices from laptops to PDAs to flash drives are beginning to give enterprise storage managers a headache. If professionals are using these “toys” at work, it’s a good bet they’ll want tech toys for outside the workplace as well.

Remember the post I wrote a while back called The Bill Gates Dream House and Your IT Career?

Think, also, of the possible career opportunities this represents for those in the IT field.  Putting this much technology into the home could bring the IT guy out of his traditional data center, transforming him into the plumber of the 21st century. It’s already happening to some extent with businesses like Best Buy’s Geek Squad.

Someday there may be no such thing as a data center, at least not outside of a few select service-provider companies. Someday telecommuting may be the only way to fly. And someday those plumbing-like computer components to the digital home may be all there is to IT.

Like the behavior of wild animals before a weather event, the segments where vendors place development bets can be an early indication for alert observers of trends to come. And right now, for what it’s worth, it looks like they’re all getting fitted for Geek Squad clip-on ties.

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