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One throat to choke

One throat to choke

It's a debate nearly as old as IT itself: Do you stick with one key vendor for all of your computing equipment or is a multivendor approach better? Back in the data center dark ages, it wasn't much of a debate because almost everything was proprietary and the idea of interoperability hadn't even hatched yet.

The single-vendor strategy has trickled into the storage arena even though networked storage is built on the concept of decoupling storage systems from servers. This allows you to use any storage array with any server OS, any application and any networking equipment. While the days of purchasing the server and receiving the storage with it are gone, some storage pros still feel compelled to buy storage from the same company that supplies their servers.

Respondents to our most recent Purchasing Intentions survey (see "The big crunch: Capacity grows, budgets shrink") ranked a vendor supplying other technology to their company as the third most popular reason for considering a particular vendor as their prime disk system supplier. The result was similar when it came to buying storage switches. For tape backup hardware, brand loyalty was even stronger, with nearly 25% of those surveyed favoring a vendor that also sells them other gear; a product's actual features and functions rated just a few percentage points ahead.

Why? Well, it's not because storage managers like wearing those EMC or IBM team polo shirts. Neither is it a fear of the unknown. Rather, it's a matter of convenience and maybe even some good business sense. The idea of dealing with only one vendor and having "one throat to choke" can be very appealing to harried storage managers trying to keep up with spiraling capacity demands, retention requirements, disaster recovery and so on.

A lot of single-vendor shops insist they get the best deals by having a single point of contact. They say their vendors cut them favorable deals knowing they're likely to keep doing business with them. But multivendor advocates pooh-pooh that price argument and say the best way to cut storage costs is to get down and dirty with several vendors and play them against each other. Let the vendors duke it out, and the user will reap the rewards of their competition.

Multivendor shops would probably concede that it's more convenient to put all of your eggs into one vendor basket. Managing storage systems from multiple vendors can put a strain on administrators and cause some tech support angst. But choosing from among several vendors' wares does allow multivendor shops the opportunity to buy best of breed. That's an important factor when you consider that much of the innovation in the storage market has come from startups and smaller vendors who have little hope of getting their feet in the doors of single-vendor shops. Aligning with one vendor could mean you'll have to wait for newer technology to slip into their slower moving, stodgier product development process. But some storage shops are willing to wait it out. As one sales rep from a three-letter acronym company associated with the color blue once told me, "If we don't sell it, you don't need it."

With a tough economy and a mandate to cut costs and keep consolidating, it can be tempting to standardize on a single vendor. On paper, at least, that should make it easier to manage installed systems with more interoperability. On the other hand, isn't that what virtualization is all about? Virtualize your storage environment and you can still have your best-of-breed products while doing cost-effective consolidation.

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