SME storage challengers emerge one feature at a time
Get small and medium benefits from storage advancement
Sysadmin Blog The storage market is in the middle of an evolution. To what, nobody knows, but a whole lot of people expect to get very rich between now and when we've got it all figured out. The only market that matters to most companies is the enterprise, because that's where the big margins are. One sales junket, lots of terabytes sold. Enterprise vendors have the marketing budgets, they get the press.
Unfortunately, throwing money at a problem is a very enterprise answer that isn't always possible for SMEs. Enterprises have complex networks dominated by operating costs. Operating Expenditure (OpEx) is a far greater concern than Capital Expenditure (CapEx). Feature rich management is important because enterprises employ people to utilise management tools all day long.
SMEs are just different. You set something up once and there's a really good chance it will be six months or a year before you even log in to the management panel again. This is exactly what most SMEs need from their storage: simple, reliable storage that "just works", and they need it dirt cheap.
The problem with the "dirt cheap" in this model is that the small business systems administrator is vanishing. Roll-your-own storage stops being feasible if there isn't a body on hand in case it goes boom. That means whatever the SME buys has to be something that their part-time contracted IT body can look after.
The rise of the MSP
All those SME sysadmins had to go somewhere and a lot of them became Managed Service Providers (MSPs). They tend to handle clusters of local clients offering that personal touch where if something's gone boom the phone call will roll a body out of bed and they'll be in a car off to the site in a matter of minutes. Instead of one sysadmin per company, you'll see three or four of these folks band together to support 25 companies at once.
What storage ends up in their customers' server rooms typically has more to do with the prejudices and personal experience of the sysadmins in question than the best fit for the company, but raw economics and a changing storage landscape are also coming into play.
A new generation of SME storage providers is coming into their own, with Synology leading the pack. No longer a simple RAID box, their devices can do block-level replication, making it possible to put a RAID 5 + RAIN 1 storage cluster* into a company that can survive not only disk failure, but failure of one of the Synology nodes themselves.
MSPs need only keep a spare pair of the highest-end model they've deployed and a few spare disks. In the very rare case that a customer calls with an issue, they grab the spare, drive it out to the customer site, RMA the dead unit, and off they go.
Many other vendors – including Netgear – are following suit with RAIN solutions of their own. Starwind has been doing it as a software-only play for quite some time.
Block-level replication has become a simple and cost-effective way to provide (literally) bulletproof storage for SMEs. It is rapidly becoming a de facto standard for situations where the possibility of having storage (and thus the entire company) down for a four hour enterprise response window is completely unacceptable, but the company in question can't afford to buy the "proper" enterprise solution to that problem.
Whose customer is it anyways?
Selling and supporting commodity storage challengers is more work than punting a Dell or HP SAN into the SME, but they offer the same (or better) reliability for a lower cost. That means that the margin Dell or HP is taking on the SAN hardware and on their four hour enterprise support now belongs to the MSP.
Perhaps more importantly to the MSP in question, by going this route they retain ownership of the customer relationship. Put a Dell into a company and you're just an interchangeable tech supporting a name-brand system, as interchangeable as the guy that comes to swap your ADSL modem.
Put something in that isn't a household name and suddenly it isn't the badge on the front that matters, but the fellow who makes it go. At the higher end, this doesn't matter. You do protracted consulting, bill enough hours to put an entire primary school through post-secondary and otherwise insinuate yourself so deeply into the company that dislodging you takes a task force of accountants and a replacement contractor.
In the SME world, however, an MSP can go months or even years without hearing from a client. They put a solution in, it "just works" and that's that.
The sticky bit
Some systems administrators consider the use of solutions that aren't from a dominant enterprise manufacturer a breach of professional ethics. The only acceptable solutions are the solutions everyone else is using, because those solutions are used by everyone.
For some, the argument is that enterprise solutions can be serviced by anyone bearing the right certificate, letting you know exactly who to hire. For others, they feel that enterprise class gear is "more reliable," though like-for-like statistics are difficult to come by. Such statistics are even harder to find supporting the enterprise-vendor side of the argument.
The most common argument is based not in technical or professional ethics but in personal morality. The more vociferous agitators against the newcomers argue that we should deploy everything identically. Sysadmins "should" differentiate themselves not by what they sell but by the more ephemeral measure of "the quality of their support".
Similarly, rank after rank of SMEs all with identical IT infrastructure and identical workflows are told they should differentiate themselves to their customers via location and "quality of service". This argument is rooted in a belief that the purity of design – typically the design the complainant is personally most familiar with – needs to come before any consideration of efficiency or affordability.
In the enterprise world, some or all of these arguments have merit. They even have merit with regards to some SMEs. They are the arguments that established vendors and challengers will need to both champion and defeat in the next few years. The rest of us, however, should start learning about products from this up-and-coming tier of "proper" SME storage providers. ®