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No one ever got fired for buying enterprise storage, right?

Maybe, but the gig will be up soon, says Martin Glassborow

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Storagebod The concept of enterprise storage - kit sold by large companies who charge very high margins for providing hardware and support services - is more or less done.

Sound like a rash statement to you? I'll explain what I mean. Pretty much all the functionality that you might expect to be put into a storage array has been done and the previous differentiating features are now provided by pretty much every vendor.

  • Data protection - yep, all arrays have this.
  • Clones, snaps - yep, all arrays have this and everyone has caught up with the market-leader.
  • Replication? yes, everyone does this but interestingly enough, I begin to see this abstracted away from arrays.
  • Data reduction – mostly, dedupe and compression are on almost every array. At present there are slightly differing implementations and some architectural limitations are showing.
  • Tiering – mostly, yet again there are varying implementations but they are fairly comparable.

And of course, there is performance and capacity. This is good enough for most traditional enterprise scenarios; if you find yourself requiring something more, you might be better at looking at non-traditional enterprise storage, at scale-out for capacity and all-flash for performance. Now, the traditional enterprise vendors are having a good go at hacking in this functionality but there is a certain amount of round pegs being jammed into square holes with some rather big corporate hammers.

The problem for the enterprise storage vendors as their arrays head towards functionality completeness is how they compete. Do we end up in a race to the bottom? And what is the impact of this? Although most enterprise technology still has value, its differentiation is very hard to quantify. Essentially, enterprise tech has become a commodity.

And as all enterprise tech begins to have more-or-less comparable functionality, it is more likely that open-source technologies will be able to "play catch up". What happens then? The big boys end up competing with "free" products.

You can't afford to disregard open source tech

You're a big hardware and services firm. How do you compete with free? You shouldn't ignore it for starters and you shouldn't pretend that free can’t compete on quality; that did not work out so well for some of the major server vendors as Linux ate into their install base. If you want an example of how it should be done, look to Red Hat and how it competes with free; it competes on service and support.

The enterprise storage sellers will no longer be competing on functionality. Centos pretty much has the same functionality as Red Hat. You simply have to compete differently.

But first, you have to look at what you are selling. The enterprise storage vendors are selling software running on what is basically commodity hardware. Commodity should not be taken as some kind of second-rate thing; it really means that we’ve hit a point where it is pretty standard, there is little differentiation.

Yet this does not necessarily mean the kit has to be cheap. Diamonds are a commodity. However, customers can see this and they can compare your price of the commodity hardware that your software runs on against the spot-price of that hardware on the open market.

In fact if you were open and honest, you might well split out the licensing costs of your software and the cost of the commodity hardware.

This is the very model that Nexenta uses. Nexenta publishes a hardware support list of components that it has tested Nexenta-stor on. There are individual components and also complete servers. This enables customers to white-box if they want or leverage existing server support contracts. If you go off-piste they won’t necessarily turn you away, but there will be a discussion.

The discussion may result in something new going onto the support list; it may end up finding out something definitively does not work.

We also have VSAs popping up in one form or another - these piggy-back on the VMware hardware compatibility list generally.

So is it really a stretch to suggest that the enterprise storage vendors might take it a stage further, in the form of a fairly loose hardware support list that allows you to run the storage personality of your choice on the hardware of your choice?

I suspect that there are a number of vendors who are already considering this... they might well be waiting for someone to break formation first. There’s quite a few of them who already have: they don’t talk about it but there are some hyper-scale customers who are already running storage personalities on their own hardware. If you’ve built a hyper-scale data centre based around a standard build of rack, server etc, for example, you might not want a non-standard bit of kit messing up your design.

If we get some kind of standardisation in the control-plane APIs, the real money to be made will be in the storage management and automation software. The technologies which will allow me to use a completely commoditised enterprise storage stack are going to be the ones that are interesting.

Well, at least until we break away from an array-based storage paradigm, another change which will eventually come. Watch this space. ®

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