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Selling physical and virtual storage arrays? How to crack it against mainstream giants

They're not infallible

Analysis Take two companies with two new storage products. One is a physical array and the other is a virtual array built from clustered server nodes. Both are block access. Will the same selling/marketing approach be successful for both? Should you sell to CIOs or to lines of business (LOBs)?

If you have a new storage array, then it is being sold in competition against other block access storage arrays from Dell EMC, Fujitsu, HDS, HPE, Huawei, IBM, Infinidat, Kaminario, NetApp, Nexsan, Pure Storage, Tegile, Tintri and others, not to mention the hyper-converged product folks and the public cloud. Even if you restrict yourself to focusing on enterprises with specific on‑premises storage array needs, you have a major problem because the marketscape and the salescape are chock-full of messages from your competition.

Selling to CIO-led organisations

They, and you, are selling an infrastructure component to data centres in a CIO-led organisation. How are you going to get heard by potential customers, you with your better mousetrap? There is no marketing silver bullet.

You can try and avoid massive marketing and sales direct spend by going with the channel, but everybody else does that too and why should the channel (a) listen to you, and (b) sell your kit to their customers? You inevitably have to market your product advantages and set up an attractive channel programme with lots of support and incentives.

It's big bucks time and the rate of development is so fast you'll have to keep this up for years to rise against the blaring noise from all your competitors and stay above them. Look at Pure's cash burn post-IPO.

If you are selling a virtual array in the same general way then you are up dog poo creek as well because you are selling against the Dell EMC, allied VSAN hordes, HDS, HPE, NetApp (soon), Nutanix, Cisco, Lenovo, Scale Computing, Pivot3, Maxta and more.

So how are you going to get heard by potential customers? There is no marketing silver bullet and you better have a really convincing "mousetrap" with a sustainable technology advantage to make progress.

In both cases, you're marketing and selling to central IT departments and CIOs who are getting battered with competing messages from more established players and have heard it all before. You're selling what's basically a commodity or near commodity product and – unless you have something really special – price-cutting will be part of your game.

You have to spend big on marketing and sales-wise to make relatively small per-unit profits, with large unit sales the only way to make big bucks. This is the costly, low-reward treadmill on which you find block storage array suppliers and the mainstream hyper-converged suppliers.

What suggests itself, in these two situations, is solution selling with partners who sell entire systems: HW + storage + networking + operating system software + application software into specialised markets. You provide the storage component and, as long as it has a substantial and long-term advantage over competing products that matters to your solution selling partners, then they'll use it.

LOBs not CIOs

You forego the lure of the large unit sales into the general enterprise storage market and pursue smaller numbers of sales to lines of business (LOB) that want whole stack tools aka 'solutions' for their problems. It's a LOB sale and not a CIO sale.

The marketing and selling of the end user's system is done by your solution-selling partners to their niche markets. They sell to LOB people in larger enterprises and specialised CIOs/central IT departments in smaller, specialised customers who need the kind of systems they sell.

What they sell is not a commodity, yet they can use commodity components in the servers, OS, and networking line, plus your storage and their software, and still make a good margin to fund marketing and sales to their niche markets' customer populations.

This is what X‑IO is doing with its Axellio product. It's taking its proprietary FabricXpress CPU-to-CPU-flash storage technology and positioning it as a scale-out clusterable 4‑socket Internet of Things edge server for applications with high data ingest rates and real-time analytics needs. X‑IO has side-stepped the general server market, dominated by Dell and HPE, with Cisco, Lenovo, Supermicro and others in hot pursuit. It's selling a converged, even hyper-converged system, but is not mixing it in the general hyper-converged infrastructure appliance (HCIA) market system either.

For Micron with its SolidScale appliances, the problem is different. These appliances can be traditional storage targets – a block array, or a scale-out, clustered server system, somewhat similar to the Axellio system. Micron could pitch the latter as a solution sell component, looking to the up‑stack partners to sell and market the product to specialised customers, as X‑IO is doing. It could do the same with the storage array target variant, if it had special and sustainable attributes that set it apart from the generality of storage arrays.

Or it could engage in a full-on assault on the block storage array market and sell against the massed sales and marketing forces of Dell EMC, Fujitsu, HDS, HPE, Huawei, IBM, Infinidat, Kaminario, NetApp, Nexsan, Pure Storage, Tegile, Tintri and the others.

El Reg thinks Micron will look for partners to help sell this product as well, rather than taking on the block storage array vendors directly. The partners could be OEMs, VARs and/or system houses. It may try direct sales into well-defined niche markets, if it can find them, but the partnering route in general looks to be less high-stress and wouldn't see Micron competing against the vendors to whom it sells SSDs.

Although Seagate and WD sell storage arrays, they do so in defined sub-markets: HPC for Seagate with ClusterStor, OEM for Seagate with the Dot Hill arrays, and OEM/VAR with WD for the Infiniflash unstructured data flash JBO-type boxes, with partners providing the software and marketing/selling efforts. Our assessment is that Micron will choose the same route and not go into full-scale competitive conflict with the mainstream flash array vendors. ®


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