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Users say keeping it simple means keeping one vendor

Despite some potential benefits of heterogeneous shops, users at Storage Decisions say they find sticking with one vendor a better way to survive the storage sprawl.

NEW YORK -- Storage growth, and managing it, are among the themes of this year's Storage Decisions conference in New York. In user led sessions, as well as conversations at the show, storage managers have said that consolidating their storage environment is a top priority -- and that for them, the competitive pricing they might get playing two vendors against one another, or the flashy features offered by some startups, don't outweigh the management headaches of a heterogeneous shop.

Tim Hesson, corporate manager, storage management for Kindred Healthcare Inc., said in his presentation on storage area network (SAN) consolidation, that one of the major factors prompting a massive, seven-month consolidation project for his storage fabric was a desire to standardize his environment on products from Cisco Systems Inc.

Kindred, an acute care hospital and rehabilitation center consortium with approximately 200 terabytes (TB) of storage, is a big Cisco shop for Ethernet switches but had been using a "core-edge design" from McData Corp. as its SAN fabric.

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Hesson said he undertook the consolidation project because his 26 McData switches, with 100 interswitch links (ISLs), were an overwhelming management headache. But, he said, the move away from McData had more to do with standardizing the IT environment than a problem with its products.

Standards in several areas were something Hesson emphasized throughout his talk. His shop is also using the Information Systems Audit and Control Association's (ISACA) Control Objectives for Information and related Technology (COBIT) to standardize its processes and set standards for everything from redundancy -- dual host bus adapters (HBA) for everything is the rule, he said -- to organizational roles.

"It sounds trivial," Hesson said, "but halfway through your project with cables lying everywhere is not a time to figure out who's going to do what tomorrow, who's going to work on this problem, and who's going to answer the phone."

Simplifying with one vendor -- despite the risks

Other users at the show said that while they knew they might lose out on competitive pricing -- or even on superior technology -- sticking with one vendor can be a matter of survival.

In a way, said John B. DeRosa, manager, network systems for the wiring device division of electronics manufacturer Hubbell Inc., having a single vendor for an entire environment can be its own single point of failure. "You're tied into their technology," he said. "And you have to grow with them. It makes it difficult for new players to compete -- but that's the risk you run."

It has only been recently, DeRosa said, that his shop has been heavily standardizing on EMC Corp. storage. Previously, his division had an EMC Clariion CX600 at the central data center in Milford, Conn., and various direct attached storage (DAS) and network attached storage (NAS) devices in six branch locations.

More recently, however, DeRosa said his division is in the process of installing EMC AX150 arrays in the branch offices and centralizing backup. The standardization on one system is not limited to primary storage either, DeRosa said. The company's SAP systems are also being standardized across the board; backups, meanwhile, have all been standardized on Veritas' NetBackup. EMC's partner, Dell Inc., dominates the server side.

Nor is the traditional "one throat to choke" the sole deciding factor in the standardization on EMC, DeRosa said. Another key factor for him is a large number of fellow customers to rely on for advice in solving problems.

Steve Palmucci, senior director, IT infrastructure and operations for Teva North America, a pharmaceutical company, has two vendors in his shop -- IBM and Network Appliance, Inc. (NetApp). IBM's DS8100 arrays run his primary storage for critical databases, using high-end Fibre Channel (FC) drives; NetApp's FAS980 and 960 filers occupy the rest in his Tier-2 storage.

But while there's more than one vendor in his shop, there could have been many more than two -- Palmucci is in the process of consolidating primarily Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) DAS onto NetApp's filers with SAN/NAS capabilities, for which he might have used separate vendors, or created separate tiers, instead.

"It is not our strategy to have multiple vendors within tiers," Palmucci said, adding that he chose to standardize Tier-2 on NetApp because it offered access to NFS, CIFS and FC interfaces. While Palmucci said he knew vendor lock-in could theoretically drive his costs up, "there's a cost just to buy into a technology. Buying into frames and licensing multiple times on any tier just doesn't make sense."

Why would you try to save money on hardware by playing two vendors against each other when you add so much complexity it negates the savings anyway?"
Stephen Foskett,
Leo Frisino, storage and network specialist for the state of New York Executive Department Division of Housing and Community Renewal, said his company had also taken the NetApp hybrid-system route several years ago, condensing three Compaq/HP SANs onto three NetApp3020 units and two FAS270 clusters, spread over four sites, but all administered through one interface from the department's headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

The risks of being reliant on one vendor "do enter my mind," Frisino said, "but so far there have been no issues." In fact, Frisino said, he thinks he's getting better support from NetApp because he's making a bigger investment. "We're dealing directly with them, rather than with a reseller," he said.

During his presentation, Hesson also said he was relieved, in retrospect, that he had decided to standardize on Cisco from a support perspective after eight supervisor cards -- the main management blade in the MDS director -- were overloaded during the process of consolidating his fabric.

After the first was overloaded, Hesson said, Cisco was proactive in replacing not only the first, but all of the cards in his environment. That's the difference in having a vendor heavily involved in a project, rather than being one of many players, he said.

In larger environments, according to Stephen Foskett, director of strategy services for Glasshouse Technologies Inc., the cost of hardware is often the smallest portion of a company's total spend. In one large shop for which Foskett consults, he said hardware accounted for just 14% of the total cost of ownership (TCO).

"Why would you try to save money on hardware by playing two vendors against each other when you add so much complexity it negates the savings anyway?" he said.

In larger shops, Foskett said, the way to keep competitive pressure on vendors is to bring another vendor in for Tier-2, or to conduct aggressive request for proposals (RFP) every three years. "Make sure vendors know that in three years, there'll be another competitive RFP," he said.

If being beholden to one vendor still sticks in a user's craw, management can be simplified by consolidating with one management tool instead, according to Greg Schulz, founder and analyst with the StorageIO Group -- something that's becoming more and more viable as vendors work toward storage resource management (SRM) standards, such as SMI-S.

"It all depends on your philosophies and objectives," Schulz said. "Some people argue that standardizing on just one vendor for the sake of simplicity is just one step away from outsourcing."

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