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iSCSI SAN software: riding the winds of change?

Last week, Hewlett-Packard launched its first iSCSI SAN product based on its acquisition last year of LeftHand Networks. As part of that announcement, HP made it official that LeftHand’s days as a software-based iSCSI SAN vendor are over. The company’s SAN/iQ software will continue to use commodity servers for hardware, but those servers from now on will only be manufactured by HP and will be pre-packaged into appliances with LeftHand’s software.

Most of LeftHand’s customers had them delivered like this anyway, as LeftHand’s software met in the channel with servers and were integrated by VARs. Still, come customers said they were disappointed that they could no longer use LeftHand’s software to repurpose existing hardware.

But this is not the first time a storage vendor has begun as a software-only play and moved into the appliance world once it was acquired by a larger vendor. That was the case with Avmar. Avamar began by delivering its host-based data deduplication software as an appliance, but large organizations could get better economies of scale by purchasing their own hardware from their usual supplier, or had standardized on a particular server build and didn’t want a noncompliant appliance sticking out like a sore thumb.

Thus Avamar went software-only, until it was acquired by EMC Corp. Soon after that acquisition EMC rolled out the Avamar Data Store, saying many of its customers didn’t want to have to assemble their own hardware/software clusters, especially in large environments (the company will still sell the product in a software-only version to users who want it, however). It didn’t hurt that EMC’s relationship with Dell flipped that economies-of-scale equation between Avamar and enterprise customers on its head, just like it doesn’t hurt for LeftHand that somewhere in the world, HP produces a ProLiant server every few seconds.

So I couldn’t help but think about all this when I met with a company a couple of weeks ago that has designs on being the heir apparent to LeftHand. StarWind Software and its eponymous iSCSI target software product are not exactly new. The product has been marketed for years by RocketDivision, a company headquartered in the Ukraine, which spun off StarWind Dec. 1.

CEO Zorian Rotenberg said StarWind is going to charge $2,995 for its most deluxe package which includes CDP, snapshots, repolication, mirroring, thin provisioning and an optional virtual tape library interface. That license fee also covers unlimited capacity in perpetuity.

StarWind is far from alone in value propositions of this type from a whole new generation of companies stepping up to pick up where LeftHand left off. StorMagic, Seanodes Open-e, DataCore, and Double Take’s emBoot are all on the market touting the benefits of commodity hardware and affordable, flexible software.

DataCore is a good example of a company that started off and remains software-only. And Enterprise Strategy Group founder Steve Duplessie suggested to me last year that server virtualization may change IT pros’ mentality around software-only storage. Meanwhile, the cloud data center has got people thinking about commodity hardware and horizontally scalable architectures. So it’s possible that the current “class” of iSCSI SAN software vendors will blaze a new trail.

But having watched the lifecycle of Avamar and LeftHand, I’m also wondering if it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.

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