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Hidden costs may lurk in midrange gear

Midrange products are flying out the door, but analysts advise users to watch out for higher operational costs.

EMC Corp. turned heads on Wall Street this week when it reported a 37% rise in third-quarter profit. Digging into the numbers, a strong increase in sales of its Clariion midrange line, up from $228 million a year ago to $355 million this quarter, indicates an interesting trend.

Spending on midrange systems is rising steadily and will continue by the looks of things. According to a 2004 Purchasing Intentions Survey (to be published in the November issue of Storage), 600 users from industries including government, healthcare and finance were asked a variety of questions about how they are spending their storage dollars. Respondents said 38% of their spending will be on midrange systems, 24% will go on high-end gear, 33% on low-end storage and 5% on other products.

"Midrange products have proven to be reliable and provide good application performance … In many cases, outperforming enterprise-class storage systems," said Tony Asaro, analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group. But there are some traps to be aware of.

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Managing costs in data protection

Typically, midrange products are limited to the amount of FC ports, processing power and cache memory available. "As you add servers and users, at some point your contention ratio of hosts to storage ports will be unreasonable," Asaro noted. Most customers have a 3 to 1 ratio of host to storage ports. That means that if you have a midrange system that supports 16 FC ports -- you can only support 48 hosts at best, he said.

Randy Kerns, analyst with the Evaluator Group, noted that remote replication products for distributed storage systems will have fewer capabilities regarding configuration, resynchronization and speed/efficiency. "Certainly, they don't usually support mainframe attachment, which closes that market segment … There also may be some internal load balancing and performance reporting capabilities that the cache-centric [high-end] systems have to allow for more detailed management of the storage," he added.

While users have a greater choice of vendors to pick from in the midrange versus the high end, the operational costs for managing midrange systems may be higher, according to Mike Karp, analyst with Enterprise Management Associates. "Buyers will have redundant skill sets for servicing products from multiple vendors, and midrange systems are generally distributed rather than centralized," he said.

Most experts and users seem to agree that while some functionality is lost in midrange products, the line between high-end and midrange software functionality is blurring. IBM's DS6000 and DS8000 are a recent example of products that use the same copy functions across both platforms.

Asaro pointed out that new distributed clustered architectures will also change these definitions over time. Users can add more nodes to a storage system enabling them to start small and scale as large as they need. And storage virtualization offers the potential to use commodity storage with enterprise-class features. "The old views are beginning to be challenged," he said.

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