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Users rely on VARs for help with HP and EMC services

Users say value added resellers have been the key to successful storage purchases from big vendors like EMC and HP.

For users of storage equipment from Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) and other large vendors, like EMC Corp. and IBM, the size and track record of a large vendor is a plus when selling management on a purchase. But once the purchase is made, getting attention from a huge multinational corporation is tough.

And so when users gathered in Las Vegas for HP's annual StorageWorks conference last month, this issue was on many minds.

"Our initial installation went very well," said Patrick Frith, systems manager for Optimus Corp., a subcontractor managing IT for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Optimus worked with HP to install twin EVA arrays and connect them to the FAA's servers.

"But now that it's up and working, how do we make it work better?" Frith asked. "I think HP wants to be flexible for its customers and doesn't want to necessarily be telling them what to do. But I think we could have benefited from their recommendations."

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That's where local channel partners come in, other users said.

According to Gordon Bosse, director of data communications for Grinnell Mutual Reinsurance Co., located in Grinnell, Iowa, there are certain things he insists on going to HP for, especially BreakFix services.

"I make it a point to ask for an actual HP rep with that kind of issue," Bosse said. "But when it comes to, 'I want to do something, how do I do it?' I go to [Cedar Rapids, Iowa, HP value added reseller (VAR)] Vital [Support Systems]."

So far, Bosse said, Vital has helped him with everything from provisioning on his Modular Smart Array (MSA) 500 and 1000 storage area networks (SAN) to the design and installation of a new switching fabric when Grinnell wanted to add more servers to its environment and didn't have enough ports on its existing fabric to do so.

"I wouldn't even know who to go to within HP for that kind of information," Bosse said. "Vital has also been through issues like this in the field with its customers, and they're located close to us."

Bosse compared using a VAR to car repairs. "When you have an issue with your car, you don't go and ask another driver or the dealer," he said. "You go and ask a mechanic. That's how I think of Vital."

When Coe College, with a small campus in Cedar Rapids, went to deploy its first ever Fibre Channel SAN less than a year ago, it was HP Elite Partner EnCompass, also located in Cedar Rapids, that made it possible. According to Mike Flender, network technician for Coe, the college decided to consolidate its direct attached storage (DAS) and HP ProLiant servers onto a 5 terabyte (TB) MSA 1500 SAN and VMware Inc. virtualized servers, but it found itself faced with difficulties getting VMware to run efficiently.

"We still had low utilization on our servers with VMware," Flender said. "EnCompass came in and trained us on how to manage, monitor and deploy our new servers and how to attach them most efficiently to the SAN."

Flender said the biggest appeal to working with EnCompass, besides the personal attention, was that it was so nearby. "Nobody likes to call India for tech support," Flender said. "We'll pay good money not to."

Flender even went so far as to say that HP's VAR network had been as much a part of differentiating its product as the MSA's technical capabilities.

"One of HP's strengths is that you can find multiple vendors that offer warranty support and training," he said. "That's one of the biggest reason we went with HP over Dell specifically.

Not just for the little guy

Downey Savings and Loan, a regional bank located in Newport Beach, Calif., isn't a small shop by any means -- the bank has 160 TB of EMC Symmetrix DMX storage, 100 TB of it in its headquarters on a DMX 3000, and the rest mirrored using SRDF to a secondary disaster recovery site in Glendale, Ariz.

However, Downey chief information officer Francisco de Cordova, who had previously worked for such Fortune 500 companies as Wells Fargo and Bank of America, said Downey is still not quite large enough to be counted as one of EMC's biggest accounts and not large enough to support a full-time on-site EMC engineer, something de Cordova said had been the norm at the larger companies.

"We aren't large enough to have the presence of a manufacturer's team onsite, but we still needed outside help to augment our staff as we built out our SAN," de Cordova said.

De Cordova said he went with EMC's storage in part because of the above-and-beyond efforts of its partner Stack Computer Inc., located in Irvine, Calif. Stack engineers visited Downey's site and did in-depth presales evaluation and design for the company's infrastructure, including identifying how best to set up a tiered-storage infrastructure, file system structures and most importantly, how to go about mirroring data to the secondary disaster recovery site while meeting recovery point objectives (RPO) and recovery time objectives (RTO) for different applications.

"This was a fair amount of work they did for us," de Cordova said. "And it was all before we'd signed anything to buy from EMC."

De Cordova said the bank still works with Stack to monitor its traffic over the wide area network (WAN) and to keep up to date on best practices for its storage as the company grows. He said the VAR's commitment to working with the bank was one of the major reasons EMC won the deal over IBM and Hitachi Data Systems Inc. (HDS).

"It's important we do this implementation right the first time," de Cordova said. "Our board of directors nervous when I pitched this architecture to them -- people will remember forever if there are issues with this SAN."

A win-win for customers and vendors

In an ideal world, every customer would get an equal amount of personal attention from the manufacturer of their storage equipment. But the impracticality of this is something the large vendors do recognize among their customers—and VARs are their strategy for closing the gap.

According to a keynote speech at StorageWorks by Ann Livermore, executive vice president, technology solutions group for HP, even the most advanced HP shops are reporting utilization rates on their storage arrays as low as 20%.

"That's why we're working with HP's value added partners," Livermore told the convention, "to help you make the most out of your purchases."

"I honestly don't know how any [large company] could sustain a business model if they didn't partner," said John Orr, CEO of Stack. "Especially for an array like the Symmetrix -- getting an array like that without some kind of help in implementing it is like buying a Porsche and running it on low-grade fuel."

With industry consolidation occurring at a breakneck pace over the last year (see When companies consolidate, who wins?, May 11), the removal of big vendors from their customers, especially smaller customers, is only going to get worse, making VARs and channel partners all the more necessary.

"Big companies have all just become basically channels to the market," said Arun Taneja, founder and analyst with the Taneja Group, of the consolidation.

"I see it as more of a shift in vendors go to market strategy, cost alignment and ability to focus resources where most appropriate," said Greg Schulz, founder and analyst with the StorageIO Group. "In the lower end of the enterprise and upper to midrange of the small and midsized business (SMB) space where the larger vendors play, the VAR or reseller can provide more customer focus and tailored face time."

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