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Storage is a pain in the ass

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NetApp has reported another  great quarter.

It's obvious that this is a great moment for the company , especially now that it is now pointed out as the leader in midrange storage market, and direct competitors are all striving to match NetApp and win customers' affection.

This blog is not meant to show how better or worse NetApp is faring compared to other vendors, but I want to start from the NetApp news to elaborate some thoughts about the success of some storage companies.

Storage is the pain in the a$$ for every enterprise (and a great opportunity for every vendor!): data grows, and grows, and grows, day after day and it is an exponential growth. Every vendor is doing well with revenues here but, in a sparkling and explosive market segment like this one, doing well isn't enough ... you need to do better! So, why are some vendors are doing better?

I deal with IT infrastructures and have been meeting customers almost every day for a couple of decades, and I have witnessed a lot of changes in the customers' mind over this time. Now I see a shocking acceleration, probably due the recent economic recession, in how customers pay attention to Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) when renewing their infrastructures. Actually all IT vendors are taking advantage of this, just not all in the same way!

Storage evolution

Omitting ancient history, I can roughly recap the evolution of recent storage history, like this:

Protection: One of the first topics in the 90s was RAID protection. I recall many meetings to explain why RAID is needed, how it works, implementations and so on (funny days indeed). One host, one cable, one array. 
Connectivity: Then came the time to connect "many" hosts to one array (at first via SCSI, eventually using FC). The first SANs appeared in the market.
Performance: I remember a lot of customers asking for performance and many salesmen proudly pushing out unrealistic benchmarks about cache throughputs.
Scalability: after the intoxication of performance, customers asked for more capacity, realistic performance figures, and architectural scalability.
Features: snapshot/clones and replicas for everyone, only naming the first that come to mind.
Management tools: being scalable and full featured means big and complex... complexity need to be managed. 
Ease of use: managing systems with CLIs (command line interfaces) and keeping trace of LUN maps with Excel files takes time and very skilled people ... GUIs and more human friendly interfaces became important.
Efficiency: the right use of resources is fundamental to save money, especially in the recent times. (Do more with less was the meme)
Integration: if your storage isn't integrated with higher software layers all your work will become more complex.
Automation: now customers prefer to automate jobs, such as tuning, tiering, and provisioning.

Well, if you made it through my list you might have easily noticed that after the fourth point, customers stopped asking for hardware; they asked for software features instead. Of course, hardware is still important but, by now, all the industry understands that commodity x86 hardware provides power in spades and good reliability. Performance, scalability, connectivity and data protection are no longer the focal points of any discussion of a new storage project; they are taken for granted.

Software is the only way to go

  Software often makes the difference between managing data storage and managing data.

In the last year I have only talked with customers about their applications and their processes, almost never about blocks and files: people want to solve problems and "the problem" isn't the storage hardware; it is the data to be managed in the storage.

For example, if you show a customer a reliable way to manage a full copy of his multi-terabytes SAP environment in a bunch of clicks, consuming a small amount of physical storage without the need of an expert ... you win. You see the light in his eyes and he'll begin to talk enthusiastically about time savings (and also kicks the ass of lazy SAP and database admins and developers).

As I already said, it's no longer a matter of performance, scalability, connectivity, nor reliability. In 2011 all these hardware features are provided by every vendor in some way. The vendor difference is made by the smartness of the software and its integration with all the other layers of the stack. The proof of what I'm saying comes from the market: any vendor actually gaining market shares these days sports the best in high-level software features.

Bootnote: Enrico Signoretti is the CEO of Cinetica, a small consultancy firm in Italy, which offers services to medium/large companies in finance, manufacturing, and outsourcing). The company has partnerships with Oracle, Dell, VMware, Compellent and NetApp. ®

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