Storage for the SMB

Storage vendors are tailoring their solutions to the SMB market, but will commoditised solutions mean an easier sell for channel partners?

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By  Mark Sutton Published  July 29, 2003

Commoditisation|~||~||~|Every business creates data, no matter how big it is or what sector it operates in. With increasing amounts of computer automation in every industry, the amount of data produced has grown to unprecedented levels, yet managing this data has, for the most part, only been a matter of concern to the larger organisations. But as IT has penetrated through to smaller and smaller businesses, both increasing the uptake and the complexity of solutions, so smaller companies have realised that they need to do something to manage their data better. For their part, the storage solutions vendors have begun to look to new customers and new opportunities outside of the enterprise markets. So how is the industry meeting the storage needs of the SMB?

Like information security and enterprise applications, storage has been the preserve of large enterprises, with the exception of perhaps some mid-level companies with sensitive data. Most SMBs have little more than a tape drive for back up purposes, and even these solutions are not too common in this region. But the market is moving. For a start, the enterprise level has mostly deployed their solutions already, and only requires maintenance and upgrades. Secondly, solutions have become commoditised, and new technologies are enabling companies to roll out cheaper options for smaller budgets. On top of that, as applications such as ERP move more into the mid-market, so customers are demanding solutions to handle the data generated by these applications.

“What we saw in the mid-range, nearly ten years ago, functions started to be commoditised from the high end into the mid-range, things like snapshot cloning, remote replication, centralised management, all these things that were once in the high end started coming into the mid-range,” explained Jeff Maslen, IBM’s storage sales manager for Middle East & Pakistan.

“A similar thing is starting to occur in the lower end of the SMB space. What is happening is that people even further down the chain are now asking for similar kinds of functionality, similar kinds of management, at an even cheaper price point, so that is why you start to see the emergence of things like Serial ATA,” he added.

There are certainly technologies coming through that aim to provide enterprise level performance but at a lower price. Serial ATA (SATA) hard drives for example are getting a lot of attention from server builders. Hafeez Khawaja, regional director of emerging markets for Western Digital commented: “Our SATA offering basically gives all the features of a SCSI drive but a lot cheaper. I think particularly in emerging markets, where people are more cost sensitive but demand for storage is continuously growing, this is the ideal technology. In terms of technology it is 30% cheaper than an equivalent SCSI drive.”

Ancel Fernandes, marketing manager of storage specialists STME points to the example of EMC, well known as an enterprise player with its Symmetrix range, the vendor moved into the mid-tier last year with CLARiiON servers. “Typically storage vendors are scaling down, they have realised that there is a huge potential in the mid-market, and they have got to make the solutions more affordable to the mid-market segment,” Fernandes said.

||**||Storage still requires expertise|~||~||~|However, while the solutions may be getting cheaper and more commoditised, they are still not at the stage of one size fits all. The solutions are as variable as the customers themselves. Some require just straight forward back-up of their core data for record keeping purposes, others need complete replication of data for disaster recovery, others may need to have a very large amount of data easily to hand. Computer Associates has been active in enterprise level storage software for some time with its BrightStor solutions, but the vendor is also targeting SMBs with BrightStor ARCserve. While the products are aimed at different segments, the functionality is increasingly developing along the same lines.

“In today’s industry, you cannot judge the customer just based on size,” said Shridhar Mahuli, Computer Associates Middle East’ senior technical consultant for storage solutions. “Even a low end customer, who might have a lesser amount of data, is running applications that are equally as complex—size does not matter, it is the complexity of the storage requirements.”

Also, while there has been a huge amount of publicity surrounding the need for IT security, storage has not gained the same awareness in the market. For partners this can make selling storage a challenge, but it also has opportunities beyond hardware sales.

“The medium sector don’t really know what storage is all about,” said Fernandes. “They are reading a lot, creating awareness, and they are now beginning to realise that by investing in a storage solution they are beginning to benefit, but the toughest part of it is for the IT manager to justify it to their finance department.”

This lack of understanding means that to successfully sell a storage solution, the channel partner not only has to convince the IT manager, but also has to have the confidence of the business manager, and also has to understand where the customer’s business is going, to allow them to build a solution that can meet future business requirements. Suren Vendantham, managing director of StorIT distribution explained: “As the company grows, so the data also grows, the complexity grows, so obviously the reseller has an opportunity to offer consultancy at the same time, to review the storage needs of the client.”

||**||Building storage channels|~||~||~|Providing an appropriate solution includes both hardware elements and software, according to Vendantham. Resellers have to be careful not to oversell their customers, and simply dump a huge storage solution on them, which they will not utilise. At the same time, good storage management software is necessary to make sure that the client uses the storage they have got in the most intelligent way.

The good thing with storage, is that unlike security solutions that require a major investment from the off, a storage solution can be built from the ground up, bit by bit.

“We go into a small organisation and tell them what solutions are available, and how it could benefit them, we provide a phased growth for them,” said Fernandes. “We say you could start off with a backup solution, then move to replication, move to a SAN, so we give them a choice, depending on the budget they have and how critical they find their information is.”

Selecting the correct solution is just part of the deal however. Deployment of storage is potentially as complicated and mission critical as security, if not more so. In a situation where a solution provider is taking charge of all of an organisation’s data, any mistakes with the data could have catastrophic effects.

“The more you centralise management of data, the more exposed as a company you become if [data] is not there when you want it. Something like 80% of companies that have a major outage and lose data go out of business within a year of that happening. There is a risk with centralisation, you get economies of scale, but if you don’t do it right, you can potentially kill the company,” Maslen explained.

Storage expertise is filtering into the region however. IBM is willing to invest in training for partners that are willing to move forward themselves, and while the knowledge required is not quite commoditised yet, it is getting simpler. Western Digital is working with other vendors and white box server manufacturers to provide them with the expertise to build storage servers based on SATA. Computer Associates is working with channel partners that can provide a complete solution to customers, such as VARs and high end systems integrators, as well as working with a second tier through its value added distributors in the region.

For StorIT as a VAD, the model is to train resellers to be able to handle at least the first level of a customer engagement, and to impart the value of a storage solution to the customer, Vendantham said. “Basically we train our resellers to a certain extent where they can go in and talk to a customer, and understand their requirements, at least to size up the requirement. Then they can come back to us for designing the solution—most of the consultancy part of the deal is value addition from our side.

“It is essential for the reseller to get into the role of consultant, to make [the customer] understand the return on investment factor, why it is important to secure data—the price of hardware is falling rapidly, so the area where resellers can make more revenue is in consultancy and services—implementation, integration and support.”||**||

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