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Storage vendors seek summer of love with SMBs

Flushing the hype pipe

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Analysis Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) seem to be the number one target in storage vendor marketing departments. Every week brings new product launches, partnership arrangements and channel initiatives.

But as storage vendors rush to liven up the summer tech news lull, they may be in danger of being carried away by their own hype.

The vendors best poised to capitalise on the market are those with long-standing relationships in SMB IT departments - the server vendors. HP, Sun, and IBM are all aggressively targeting SMBs.

IBM and Sun both launched new SMB boxes last week. IBM told The Reg it expects its new DS4200 to not do well, but dominate. But the consensus seems to be it has a long way to go before it can talk about anything approaching domination with any credibility.

EMC is the only vendor threatening the triumvirate by virtue of sheer grunt. Dell would like to get involved, but as one industry source pointed out "it has no product". There are of course a host of bit-players snatching at a slice of the pie. NetApp has set up what is essentially a new SMB subsidiary with StoreVault line.

Gartner storage analyst Roger Cox backs the broader industry effort. He told The Register: "It is the right thing to be doing," but with a series of important health warnings.

There's inevitably a bias from vendors towards the "M" end of the SMB sector. When it comes to a big fat expensive fibre channel versus iSCSI, for example, in the SMB sector the answer is invariably "what can I afford?," says Cox. SloughPaperclipsDirect could probably get by on a few HDDs sellotaped together, and probably does.

Cox said: "[The market] is not as big as some of the vendors and many analysts will suggest." Gartner estimates the business to be worth about $1.1bn at the moment, potentially rising to $1.4bn by 2009, but nowhere near the pie-in-the-sky $5bn figure that some have bandied about.

There's yet another caveat to temper enthusiasm. The "M" word looms large over the SMB storage market. Redmond launched its first conscious data protection effort September 2005, and is expected to make more forays into the SMB storage software arena. With Microsoft's domination of small companies' software purchasing, the hardware vendors will be keeping a close eye on how to optimise their kit for whatever is imposed.

We wonder if that's because the high end, where the real money is in bespoke systems, integrated solutions, and value-added management services, is sewn up by EMC et al.

Perhaps with all the excitement over regulatory compliance, the industry has convinced itself that it is due growth, and pebbledashing the SMB market with products is the confused upshot. What has driven the growth of the sector, and will continue to, is the falling price of technology and the ever expanding mass of data commerce is dependent on.

The two key components of entry-level storage gear - ethernet switching and SATA-2 - are already cheap as chips, so the vendors will be scrapping round the periphery to convince buyers to switch or upgrade. The ensuing battle will mean that, for a canny SMB, the opportunity will be there over the next couple of years to bag a bargain, and then forget about storage...which after all is the way it's meant to be. ®

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