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Making storage simple isn't easy

IT managers want storage systems that are simple to administer. They measure ease of installation in time and the number of steps it takes. Ongoing administration is viewed as a negative – “Just alert me when there is a problem and give me choices of what to do about it” is a familiar response I hear when talking to IT people.

The problem is, simplicity is hard to accomplish when making storage systems. To design a complex storage system, it is difficult to bake in automation in an intelligent fashion to make it “simple.”

Simplicity in storage has come in many forms, including the advanced GUI you see in products such as the IBM XIV and Storwize V7000 or the automation designed into EMC’s FAST VP tiering software. These products are complicated to develop and require an understanding not only of the storage system but of the dynamics encountered in an operational environment. Designing in simplicity can be expensive, too. It requires a substantial investment in engineering and the ongoing support infrastructure to deal with problems and incremental improvements.

But, simplicity in the storage system should seem natural, with overt signs of complexity. The best comment I’ve heard from an IT person was, “Why wasn’t it always done this way?”

In many customers’ minds, simplicity doesn’t translate to extra cost. A “simple” system should cost more because it is more expensive to produce, but people often think it should cost less because it is … well, simple.

A potential problem for vendors comes when they highlight specific characteristics of a product to differentiate it from competitors. This seems logical – you want to show why your system is different. Unfortunately, talking about the underlying details of a product and how simple it is are contradictory. If it is simple, the underlying details shouldn’t have to be explained. But if the vendor marketing team does not explain them, they may not be able to distinguish their product from others. This leads to confusion as well as marketing messages that are ignored or incorrectly received.

One way out of this for the vendors is to list their features and why they are different while — more importantly — giving the net effect of those differences. They should explain the value of features such as performance and reliability, and couple that with the simplicity message. Think of this type of message: Simple is good, complex is bad. Give the simplicity story and show the contributing elements to that. And for the underlying details that may be a differentiator, explain them in the bigger context where the effect is measured and independent of the simplicity that required a large investment.

It is too easy to focus on product details while hiding the real measures needed for a storage product decision. If product details are the only message, then maybe something else is lacking.

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

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