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How to tell if your biz will do a Kodak

Learn to recognise failure - and move on

Intelligent flash storage arrays

Blocks and Files Disruptive or enhancing innovation? Kodak's descent into Chapter 11 hell is a tolling bell for all successful storage suppliers facing innovative technology from competitors. King Canute didn't reinvent himself: can you?

Let's look at the tape market. Tape devices were backup devices; they were the target storage devices for data coming from backup software. Tape device vendors pretty much defined themselves as backup software storage devices and were hardware-centric.

Along comes disk to disk backup, cutting lengthening backup windows to more acceptable periods, and along came deduplication, cutting the cost/GB of storing backup data on disk, and wham! The tape device's role as 'the' backup software data storage device target was attacked, ferociously attacked.

Tape device vendors and tape formats buckled. ADIC, Exabyte, Tandberg, Overland Storage, Quantum, and others found their mainstream businesses under devastating assault. There was major consolidation in the industry as multiple tape formats collapsed, leaving the mainstream field to DAT and LTO, with IBM and Oracle/StorageTek duking it out in the more protected mainframe tape market.

Tandberg nearly went bankrupt and is now recovering, helped by removable disk drive protection products and LTO adoption. Quantum was in dire straits through having to pay off ADIC acquisition debts while building out a disk deduplication product line through that acquisition and is only now returning to health. Overland is still struggling after a foolish move into selling disk drive arrays, with its growth hopes pinned on clustered SME Snap Server filers.

SpectraLogic has weathered the storm well as it embraced LTO, avoiding the costs of developing and supporting its own formats, didn't have an OEM contract dependency, and saw quite clearly that the archive role for tape was becoming key as the backup target device role waned. Today it looks the healthiest of the open systems tape device vendors and is plugging away at cloud archiving opportunities, competing with high-end libraries from IBM and Oracle.

Optical storage

Today the DAT and LTO tape markets are largely ex-growth revenue wise but, for vendors that manage their businesses well, still profitable and still big enough to support product development. This is a great outcome considering what has happened to business use of optical disk storage.

There, tape for archiving, deduping disk for backup, and download for music and videos, have just destroyed a market. Proprietary formats – like Plasmon's UDO and Plasmon itself – were simply wiped off the storage map. Holographic storage technology was broken by the difficulty of manufacturing drives that were affordable and reliable enough. Optical storage is effectively dead.

There comes a time when a storage company needs to define itself by what it does for customers and not by the machinery it uses to do so.

Plasmon was broken by the wheel of progress because it defined itself as a business that provided data archiving on optical disks. Exabyte was wrecked because it defined itself as a backup data target using VXA tapes and drives. Overland, Quantum and Tandberg defined themselves as businesses providing backup data storage on tape.

That was fine as long as there was no device competition for tape. As soon as deduping disk came along then they were vulnerable and carnage ensued. Now they are businesses providing file data storage (Overland), data protection on removable media (Tandberg), and data protection storage devices and virtualised data management and access software (Quantum with DXI, tape and StorNext).

Flash and the cloud

Now along comes the cloud with the idea of storing copies of data for protection (backup) and the long-term (archive) in the cloud whee it is much more cost-efficient. The cloud becomes the target device for business users and they need products and services that transport their data to and from the cloud. Long-term companies supplying data protection products and services better sell storage devices to cloud service providers and access services to the cloud service providers' customers - or move into new businesses.

And along comes flash, destroying the fast Fibre Channel hard drive business in front of our eyes. IT threatens to destroy the entire primary data disk drive array business as well, if startups like Nimbus, SolidFire, Pure Storage and Violin Memory and others succeed, helped by server flash storage suppliers like Fusion-io, OCZ, TMS and many others.

It's even possible, by squinting far ahead into the future, to envisage a world where the disk drive array has vanished from business data centres and migrated up into the cloud – where bulk data tubs store the data that's stored in business data centres today.

Server business storage re-invention

Look at how the server companies, Dell, HP and IBM, have re-invented their storage businesses by buying in new technologies. Take Dell, for example. It has bought EqualLogic for iSCSI SANS; Compellent for Fibre Channel SANs; Ocarina for deduplication and compression; and Exanet for scale-out NAS. It's partnering with Caringo for object storage, spreading dedupe and scale-out NAS technology across its storage platfoms, and building a common management front-end across these platforms as well.

Typically innovation in storage happens outside the established players and they have to reinvent the wheel themselves – like HP with StoreOnce deduplication – or buy it in, which explains the frenzied acquisitions over the past few years by EMC, Dell, HDS, HP, IBM, NetApp and Oracle.

Now these reinvigorated players face a new wave of startups: cloud-facing ones like Nirvanix; flash + disk arrays like Nimble Storage; and pure flash arrays and data copy reduction concerns like Actifio. They should welcome this.

Masters of the Universe beware

Innovation has to be embraced and welcomed, even if it is disruptive and damaging to existing businesses. Look at the megolamaniacal success of Steve Jobs with Apple. See how Nokia's mobile phone division was devastated by smartphones; how Kodak film photography was devastated by a technology – digital photography – which it had itself invented; or how tape devices were destroyed by deduping disk. Examples are all around of storage businesses that thought they were riding a stable and evolving wheel of innovation in their mainstream products, only to find it was a flywheel running out of energy and slowing to a stop.

Instead of masters of the universe they were suddenly King Canute sitting in a chair in front on the incoming tide and trying to stop it.

When the life is going to go out of a business, it is important to be able to recognise it and move on.

Does your storage supplier's CEO have the metaphorical sneer of cold command, the blindness of those who have decided not to see? Is your storage business getting Kodaked? Reinvention is the key and the storage businesses that grow and prosper will be masters of reinvention, not sinecures for over-paid, fat cat CEOs.

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