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Storage startups gain users' trust

An influx of new customers for storage startups may mean the old phrase, "No one ever got fired for buying from IBM," may be falling out of favor.

After wrangling with first generation storage area network (SAN) products, many users are feeling much freer, on their second storage purchase, to buy from upcoming and more innovative startups than established vendors. Others, late to the networked-storage party, are getting there just as products from smaller players are gaining favor. As a result, startups in the SAN and network-attached storage (NAS) market, such as 3Par Data Inc., Pillar Data Systems Inc., Compellent and EqualLogic Inc., among others, are cleaning up.

CJ Murzyn, manager of infrastructure operations for Classified Ventures LLC, is among many users who are considering startups more carefully than ever before. He said he hasn't signed any paperwork yet, but he has 3Par gear in a head-to-head comparison with EMC Corp. He also looked at Hitachi Data Systems Inc. (HDS), Compellent, IBM, StorageTek and Sun Microsystems Inc.

HDS and IBM were out almost immediately, Murzyn said, thanks to personal bad experiences with both. StorageTek, he said, embarrassed itself in not one, but two attempts to demonstrate its product to Murzyn and one of his staff engineers. "They blew it," Murzyn said. "They couldn't get their snapshot capabilities to work in the environment we requested they demonstrate to us. It turned out they didn't have the right licenses for snapshots on their frame, and they hadn't configured it correctly." When the second demonstration went just as poorly, Murzyn said StorageTek was eliminated from consideration.

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For a startup like 3Par to even make it into the final round of decision making was a change from the past for Classified Ventures and appears to be a growing trend for many users.

Another company in a similar boat to Classified Ventures is Georgia Telco Credit Union that found 3Par's InServ array more user friendly and superior in performance to EMC's Clariion CX 500. (See Credit union goes for 3Par over EMC, Feb. 24.)

Marcus Epstein, storage administrator for Viejas Enteprise, a Native American casino and resort in Southern California, said his company is planning a huge expansion this summer, building a new primary data center by August with an all-new SAN and a secondary disaster recovery site planned for next year. After considering SANs from HDS, Dell Inc./EMC, Compellent and 3Par, 3Par remains the front-runner.

But while 3Par has been around for several years, Epstein said even a year ago his company would never have considered it a viable vendor for their shop. Up until recently, the casino, which has more than doubled the number of servers in its environment from around 40 to close to 120, has relied on the household names for IT -- mainframes from IBM, servers by Dell, backup from Veritas Software Inc. (now Symantec Corp.). Moreover, when the company began planning the new data center, Epstein said his team was reluctant to stray from the established players.

But then a new hire in management convinced his team that iSCSI, combined with Fibre Channel (FC), could be a good thing -- and that such a system could come from a startup and still work, Epstein said. He declined to name the manager or his position, but, he said, "One person came in and changed the vision of our entire team. We're all totally onboard with the idea of buying from one of these companies now -- and it's a recent development."

Tony Asaro, analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group, said that once a startup has 100 or more customers, it reduces the element of risk that a lot of users have in going with smaller vendors. "Most, if not all, of the SAN storage system startups exceed that number, some of them by a large degree."

Better flexibility, more cutting-edge features

What most of the successful startups' products have in common is some sort of virtualization or automation feature that makes deploying and managing them more user friendly than older products from "Tier-1" vendors.

According to Robin Spira, chief technology officer (CTO) of, the U.K.'s third largest online retailer, he recently replaced his first SAN, an EMC Clariion 300, with 8 terabytes of Pillar's Axiom because of the way it scaled capacity with "bricks" independent of performance "slammers."

"Adding bricks simply is a very big draw for us," he said. "This array can be with us for a long time and I won't have to keep reevaluating it or thinking about my upgrade path."

Silverpop, an email services provider, also chose to go with 3Par's InServ rather than upgrade from a Clariion CX300 to a CX700. "We felt that going to the 700 would be very similar in software design -- it just seems to have higher powered controllers. We didn't feel the 700 was a big improvement over the 300," said senior network engineer Robert Kelleher.

"When you tell 3Par you want a LUN, it does everything in the background, from laying out connections and provisioning, to presenting the server with an address," he said. In his experience, this essential storage task is much more complicated and laborious with HDS and EMC storage.

"We don't have a large IT staff -- [our new SAN] needed to be easy for us to use," said Chris Resch, CTO of OfficeWare Inc. He said that despite being a Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) shop for servers and evaluating Clariion systems from EMC, an MSA SAN from HP and another FC SAN from IBM, his final choice was up-and-comer Compellent. He picked it because of its block-level virtualization feature, which restripes data across disks as spindles are added without the need for manual intervention, as well as thin provisioning capabilities similar to 3Par.

"All we have to do to move data back and forth is to clone the data and map it somewhere else with a couple of clicks. If we want to double the size of that volume, it's another couple of clicks."

Classified Ventures' Murzyn attributed new traction for startups to a kind of "leapfrog" effect in technology innovation. "With newer players, the performance and capacity of storage technology has grown so much that current Tier-2 products are as powerful, if not more powerful, than the last generation of Tier-1 products," he said. "At this point, I think the only difference between Tier-1 and Tier-2 vendors is price tag."

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