Enterprise storage vendors cosy up to small businesses

A narrowing gap

The storage landscape is changing. The storage products and skills needed for a small firm have so far been very different from those needed in large enterprises. Yet we now have some storage vendors delivering enterprise-class products aimed at workgroups, while some enterprise buyers choose mid-range products to save money.

And all the while we see the rise of cloud services that promise enterprise-grade capability and scalability to everyone, including small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).

The SMB market is perhaps changing the most rapidly. What does the SMB storage landscape look like now and what can do-it-all sysadmins learn from their specialist enterprise colleagues? And should a small firm buy enterprise storage or SMB storage?

First, let's define SMB. For our purposes, SMB means any business not large, rich or sophisticated enough to have separate teams of server, storage and networking specialists.

In some ways this lack of specialisation is a strength. Increasingly, the industry needs agility and multi-disciplinary skills – people who can understand the needs and speak the language of IT, networking and the business, and work quickly to solve business problems.

So there is potentially an advantage in being a generalist, although it might take some time to convince the specialists of that.

Sean Horne, chief technologist UK and Ireland at EMC, reckons that SMBs score when it comes to agility and openness.

“Sometimes I think the enterprise can learn a lot from SMBs because they tend to be early adopters, whereas enterprises tend to lag,” he says.

“Technology moves so fast that some of the skills you might have learned just two years ago are no longer relevant.”

He adds that the tools available to administrators have also advanced considerably, both in capability and usability.

“You have to be able to monitor, report and analyse, and those suites have become much more consumable,” he says.

“In this industry we all get excited about the hardware, but it's actually the software – the GUI and how you can drill through it – that provides the 'Wow!' moment when you first see it.

“One of the development drivers at the moment is provisioning. In the past storage admins would have taken 40 or 50 clicks to set up a volume. Now they want to go to a window and choose menu options for availability and so on via interactive questions."

He adds that reporting and monitoring software has improved beyond recognition in the past few years. "IT needs these tools so it can communicate with the business," he says.

"For example, if the business is complaining about slowness, IT needs to know if there are twice as many people actually using the system as the business thinks. Or perhaps it is using twice as much storage, or there are twice as many people using it on Monday mornings.”

These tools are also essential when you are considering moving to new systems or new architectures, Horne adds. After all, without knowing what your current system is using, you cannot properly cost or plan a new one.

Likewise, if you can't audit a system's usage profile, you can't change it from what the users told you they wanted, and which you therefore gave them, to what they really need.

Peas in a pod

Another factor to consider is that the choice between enterprise and SMB storage is an increasingly nebulous one – and in some cases there may be no difference at all.

An example is Varonis's software, which can take your existing storage and turn it into a Dropbox-like private cloud store.

Varonis marketing director Rob Sobers explains that the company recognised the opportunity in the growing SMB market, and rather than develop a new product line decided to offer SMBs its enterprise-class file synchronisation and sharing software priced per seat and with a free trial.

“Large enterprises and SMBs are becoming more alike,” he says, adding that as the underlying technology becomes more efficient and hardware needs diminish, helped in part by server virtualisation, so it becomes practical to run what would once have been a major software implementation on a far smaller scale.

He admits, though, that for developers it is something of a balancing act.

“Enterprises do have different problems to solve,” he says. “They often need deep integration with existing systems and they may have very complex workflows which require custom development and integration.

"Conversely, the SMB wants simplicity, something that is easy to install, easy to update and so on.”

So when a developer wants to cover both bases with a single product, it must get both the pricing and the technology right.

“You do have to be careful not to bloat your software with all sorts of extra features, and you don't want to make it too difficult for an SMB to implement,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, it can't be too simplistic either.

Vendors are also trying to find pricing strategies that fit SMB budgets yet avoid tempting enterprises into saving cash by buying the SMB version.

Varonis, for instance, chose to price per seat, with the smallest five-seat edition being free to lure in both SMBs and enterprise evaluators.

However, budget pressures exist in almost every organisation, so just as SMBs are adopting enterprise-grade technologies, enterprises will continue to consider mid-range or even consumer-grade technology if that can save big bucks without adding risk or compromising on functionality.

The question is, if you can deliver 90 per cent of what is needed for 10 or 20 percent of the cost, how much pain will it take to meet the remaining 10 per cent?

And given that services developed for consumers tend to be resilient, scalable and available, both large enterprises and SMBs should take a good look at whether they might be a good fit for them too.

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