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Flash array vendors dangle customized warranties, controller upgrades

Free flash controller upgrades with array warranty and maintenance agreements are common as field data shows flash is lasting longer than expected compared to the controllers.

Flash array vendors are taking steps to make sure their new all-flash array customers are more than flash-in-the-pan buyers.

To improve their chances of keeping customers beyond the life of their original all-flash array, vendors are extending warranties and maintenance agreements and offering free controller upgrades.

These programs have become so common for flash systems, the CEO of one vendor describes them as practically "table stakes" in deals.

Tegile Systems and Pure Storage were the most recent storage companies to initiate or improve flash upgrade and controller replacement programs. Tegile recently launched its Lifetime Storage program as part of its IntelliCare support that provides customers with a choice to upgrade to a new storage array every three to five years with a flat maintenance contract. The flash upgrades include the controller and the media.

Pure Storage, which began offering its own new maintenance and service and upgrade agreements two years ago, expanded its Evergreen Storage program this summer with two new capacity and density offerings for lifecycle investment protection for its flash array systems.

Nimble Storage Inc.'s Timeless Storage guarantees its maintenance and support pricing will not rise during the life of its flash system and guarantees its flash media for seven years. If customers renew support for a flash system after three years, Nimble Storage gives them a free, higher performance controller.

Larger flash array vendors have also followed this trend. EMC provides its Lifetime Maintenance Price Protection and flash wear protection offering. NetApp provides a one-time free controller upgrade with seven-year flash wear protection for the flash array. Hitachi Data Systems offers indefinite flash wear protection and a two-to-one increase in flash capacity guarantee. IBM offers flash wear protection for 13 years, a one-time free controller upgrade and a five-to-one data reduction guarantee.

Nimble Storage CEO Suresh Vasudevan said such programs are "almost table stakes at this juncture" for flash array vendors. "I go so far as to say, someone [who] does not offer those or cannot offer those today would be at a significant disadvantage," he said this week during the company's earnings conference call.

Flash changes the game for amortization, value

The extended warrantees and controller upgrades are among the ways vendors are trying to offset the fact that flash still carries a much higher raw per-gigabyte price than hard disk drives. Flash array vendors also often highlight their data reduction ratios that extend usable capacity, as well as the reduced power and cooling costs of flash.

"Most vendors are in the stage that all-flash storage for primary storage is underway," said Randy Kerns, senior strategist and analyst at Evaluator Group. "And this amounts to opportunities for many vendors to get in on the land rush that will take over in the next few years."

Kerns said field data shows that flash drives actually have much more extended lifespan than anticipated. Data shows that flash devices in enclosures generally can be held for up to seven years, while Intel-based controllers can be refreshed every three years.

"The flash controller change rate is different than flash," Kerns said. "The amortization and value for controllers is different than flash. The longevity of flash is stronger, so they are disaggregating the flash from the controller.

"So, now you are getting offers from vendors to get a free controller upgrade as long as [the customer] maintains the warranty on the flash device," he continued. "The effect is you get a greater economic value and they you also get a free controller upgrade. Vendors also want to maintain customers for a longer period of time."

We looked at the analysis of free hardware. It's really financial engineering so vendors don't take a hit on margins on the back end.
Sundip Arorasenior manager of product marketing, Kaminario

Kaminario takes a different tactic with its maintenance and warranty. Under its K-Assured program, the company offers a fixed-term maintenance agreement. Sundip Arora, Kaminario's senior manager of product marketing, said the flash array vendor does not require a customer to purchase a three-year premium maintenance plan and then buy another three-year plan to get the free controller.

"We looked at the analysis of free hardware," he said. "It's really financial engineering so vendors don't take a hit on margins on the back end. They charge an uptake on the maintenance upfront. They are shifting it from a capital expense to an operation expense to the customer."

Arora said Kaminario guarantees the maintenance and support cost will always be a "fixed proportional cost to the hardware sale cost." The vendor offers a free controller node if the customer's purchase does not meet the guaranteed performance for applicable workloads.

"If you don't see the performance upfront, we will make up the difference," Arora said.

How it works: Flash vs. hybrids

Jared Jensen, director of IT systems and services at InfoTrax Systems, purchased two flash arrays from Tegile Systems in February, mainly because he sought performance gains. InfoTrax installed a hybrid T3200 device and an all-flash T3700 system.

Jensen said both came under the same warranty, with the option to replace the controller in three to four years for free if InfoTrax renews the maintenance agreement. He said the warranty covers failures in the flash devices over a five-year period.

"Both are under the same warranty, but the controller will be replaced at a certain period of time and the flash will be replaced if there is a failure," he said.

Still, even with better guarantees than they get for hard disk drive systems, storage buyers need to remember they will pay a premium for flash.

"We needed the performance," Jensen said. "That is why we went with flash. It's not cheaper by any means. Flash still is more expensive than spindle. The warranty for the all-flash was five times the cost [of spindle disk]."

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