Locked-in but not trapped

When it comes to truly independent heterogeneous hardware storage management solutions, the issue of vendor lock-in arises. However, provided the service meets the requirements, end users in the Middle East seem non-plussed.

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By  Shankar Sharma Published  April 25, 2005

|~|Storage1.jpg|~|Storage integration is important for enterprises, says NetApp’s Gavin Keeler.|~|In the world of IT, the ‘information’ should never play second fiddle to the ‘technology’. Enterprises realise that data lies at the heart of all operations and that storage is of paramount importance. The need for archiving and data storage is of course not a by-product of the IT age, but one that has been in existence for decades. All that has changed is the desktop, disc drive and server replacing the tablets and papyrus of ancient times. Now, like then, there is a deep understanding that the recording, and availability of information forms the foundation of a company. To put it simply: One’s data is everything. It is unsurprising that hardware storage solutions market is at present one of the most burgeoning fields in the IT industry. As enterprises expand, more and more data is being accumulated and stored. Hardware, like all commodities, is finite and therefore end users are engaged in a perennial quest to find hardware management solutions that are heterogeneous and truly independent. However, it ought to be noted that storage infrastructure doesn't mean only the discs and where data resides. It includes all the storage subsystems, the storage area network (SAN) switch, the HBAs host bus adapters (HBAs) and network attached storage (NAS) boxes. It also includes tape drives for data backup, the data replication solution in place for disaster recovery, and the overlaying volume management and file system software. Of late, there has been a growing trend among end users to look at storage vendors with a degree of skepticism when it comes to selecting a truly independent heterogeneous storage management solution. In an extremely competitive environment — and one witnessing a high level of product evolution — there is much confusion. Xceed, however, is one such company that believes it has struck gold. Officially launched in June 2002, Telecom Egypt created Xceed to help manage an explosion of growth in voice and data traffic. The new company was established as a provider of customer contact centre capabilities for both government and commercial clients on a global spectrum. Located in a key strategic hub within the Middle East region – the Smart Village near Cairo, Egypt – Xceed supports a diverse range of outbound and inbound services, which it customises based on the core competencies of efficient technologies, strong infrastructure and skilled agents. It is therefore unsurprising that such a new company with a wide remit of responsibility has had to act fast in the hardware storage market. Launched within a short time frame, Xceed was faced with a challenge of rapidly building a robust and highly scalable IT architecture from scratch. ‘The decision was reached in December 2001. We were a new company without any prior data storage. With so many brands of storage in the market we had to make an evaluation,” explains Khaled Embaby, data centre manager for Xceed. That evaluation was that Xceed needed a customer relationship management (CRM) application with a database based on Oracle technology. The vendor that presented the best package and conditions turned out to be Network Applications (NetApp), with its ‘NetApp Unified Storage and Oracle9i RAC’ solution. The speed with which NetApp could provide the hardware storage solution and the simplicity of the overall package proved the crucial factors in the decision. “The major point in favour of NetApp was that it offered us a complete package. It provided heterogeneous storage servers,” he says. Since the company is new, it was faced with time pressures to lay down its IT building blocks. However, Embaby refutes the notion that adopting the solution was a case of ‘more haste, less speed’ and is happy with the move. “We have had over 400 days with zero downtime,” he adds. “It is very secure and we did not face any problems. It is simple to use, powerful, reliable and able to fit into different platforms. All the data that the company needs to be kept in storage is met with by the solution.” Embaby, nevertheless concedes that there will be an occasion in the future where upgrading the solution will be necessary. He does not have any qualms about returning to NetApp, believing that switching vendors while the company is still in its infancy is unwise. He says the purchased NetApp solution enabled the company to rapidly build its new infrastructure and ensures 24/7 secure access to customer and company data. Xceed, which considers itself to be one of the early adopters of unified SAN and NAS architectures in the Middle East, has been able to avoid the costs and complexity of managing multiple storage environments to meet its requirements. The company has a storage infrastructure capable of supporting its mission-critical data. Xceed possesses an IT team of six people, including Embaby, of which two deal with storage. The overall solution cost US$ 160,000. Little training was required due to the user-friendly nature of the solution. This conclusion comes as no surprise to Gavin Keeler, Middle East and North Africa regional director for NetApp, who helped provide the solution. He cites Xceed’s desire to have both a Microsoft windows environment and a Fujitsu Siemens Solaris environment connected to a common storage device as a reason for working with NetApp. Furthermore, the end user wished to have the storage device connected by both SAN and NAS protocols. “The benefit of this is that, instead of having multiple storage devices for both SAN and NAS, the company has just one storage device for both and the multi-protocol heterogeneous environment all in one,” he adds. NetApp specialises in homogenous storage solutions, however Keeler says the demand for this among enterprises is dwindling. “There are very little benefits now for going for a homogenous system unless you want to specifically isolate a specific application and its data for security reasons off the main network,” he says. “Most of our end users now are enterprise specific because they want a combined or unified storage platform.”||**|||~|Storage2.jpg|~|Arcapita's Glenn Harwood believes his company has made the right decision.|~|The issue of security is of paramount importance for enterprises when seeking storage solutions. Keeler allays these fears by pointing out that NetApp solutions are not based on Linux, Unix or Microsoft platforms and they operate on their own system. “Because this is not tied into any major operating system, it is very easy for us to release new technical innovations in the storage environment,” he notes. “If an [enterprise] bought a Windows storage platform, it may have to wait for the next release if, say the microkernel is not right,” he explains. “This is because the microkernel is part of the storage platform, which is part of the server platform. Our environment, looks at only one thing: store and retrieve data for storage platforms and that’s why customers remain,” he elucidates. Keeler concedes that like everything else in the IT industry, products are evolving and customers who adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach will discover new products and innovations in the future. However, he claims that at present, his company’s ethos of driving the complexity out of storage has been positively received. “Our customers see us as innovators and that is the reason why we have had success in the region for the past 12 months,” he states. Keeler insists that Xceed has complete independence in running its storage, with the vendor effectively being involved solely in sales visits and not with technical visits. The lack of freedom from the end users’ perspective can often add to a feeling of being ‘locked-in’ by a single vendor. “We have found over the years as a company that customers want to own the management of their own data and not have to rely on third parties to manage their [affairs],” he states. Another end user of NetApp hardware storage solutions is the Islamic Bank Bahrain, which is now called Arcapita. Glen Harwood, who is the IT manager of Arcapita, believes the newly acquired storage solution represents a good value for investment. “We needed more space. Looking at the region’s market today, I can say that we have made the right decision. Harwood admits that after selecting a specific vendor solution it is often a case of being ‘locked-in’ but maintains this is not an issue with his organisation. “We are tied to a certain degree,” he accepts. “We have thought about looking at different products, but because of the way data replicates across, one has to work with a single vendor.” Arcapita says the return-on-investment (ROI) is enormous. “The inbuilt technology is useful for recovering data,” he says. “We evaluated other vendor products, but nothing came close to what Network Appliance could offer us.” Qais Gharaibeh, who is the district partner sales manager for EMC in the Middle East, says independent heterogeneous hardware storage solutions are important for enterprises and vendors need to provide the appropriate solution. “EMC develops storage solutions and storage solutions only,” he states. “If our solutions are not compatible with any of the major operating systems, we would run out of business.” Gharaibeh says it is imperative for vendors to work together in order to offer interoperability and functionality for the end user. “We have invested over US$ 2 billion to guarantee our customers with the different types of configuration on various different platforms.” With implementations ranging from simple to complex, the EMC approach is to train local resellers and extend the knowledge so that they possess the know how to implement, maintain and run such environments. Furthermore, Gharaibeh says that whenever customers feel that they are not comfortable in certain areas, EMC has the requisite expertise to interact with them. “We find that sometimes EMC is lacking a particular operating system knowledge on a local basis, so we sub-contract a local partner to deliver on this knowledge,” he adds. Gharaibeh claims he has witnessed the regional market ‘waking up’ to the importance of data storage and demand for hardware storage solutions has surged. In the past, end users were asking themselves whether or not they needed storage and whether or not that need was pressing. Now, as Gharaibeh points out, dialogue between customers and vendors is more open. “They understand that they have to do storage consolidation. So many organisations have either done it or are in the process of doing it,” he adds. EMC is taking a great leap forward with regional end users by dealing with information lifecycle management (ILM). The ILM strategy presses the mutations of vertical scalability by providing multiple options for data archiving on a horizontal basis, which over the years enables customers to have better total cost of ownership (TCO) in managing their data. Security by default is a matter of concern, according to Gharaibeh. “Vendors will always pay attention so end users need not feel being compromised. First of all, ILM is a strategy. It is not a product that you buy today, it is something you build up over the years and through phases.” This may at first glance appear a case of vendor ‘lock-in’, but when the fact that 80% of an enterprise’s data exists in an unstructured content, then the argument for ILM is a sound one. Gharaibeh says that a heterogeneous hardware storage environment is important enterprises of all sizes. Like Keeler, he also admits that the homogenous hardware storage solutions are limiting for enterprises. The datacentre, moreover, forms the foundation of an enterprise in his opinion, and that end users value EMC because of the ease and flexibility of its operations.||**|||~|Storage3.jpg|~|The low cost of storage solutions is encouraging potential vendor lock-ins, says CA's Paul Ransted. |~|Another major player in this competitive market is Sun Microsystems. Zaher Haydar, who is the data management ambassador for the company in the Middle East and Africa region, says he understands that enterprise IT infrastructure tends to consist of multiple products of different classes and varying functionalities. Therefore, the starting point for any discussion of storage management solutions for enterprises have to be heterogeneous. Haydar says Sun has recognised the fact that customers need storage management solutions based on standards of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA). The most relevant standard, he cites, is the storage management initiative specification (SMI-S). “In a nutshell, SMI-S aims at making hardware and software from different storage vendor’s work together easier,” he explains. “From the customer point of view, the more products comply with SMI-S, the less storage management tools administrators must buy and learn.” The regulatory standard also reduces the complexity and administrative cost of storage management. End users who are looking for storage management solutions should consider products that comply with SMI-S and other relevant standards so that interoperability is guaranteed and vendor lock-in risks are minimised. Haydar also acknowledges that purchasing the right solution among the myriad of vendors is a major dilemma for customers and reiterates the need to look for SMI-S compliance, as well as securing service-level-agreements (SLAs). With IT managers being asked to do more with less, the acquiring of complete integrated solutions rather than going for point products, require a large extent of post delivery integration, with all the potentially associated risks of being late to market and extra unforeseen costs. “Taking this into consideration customers should consider end-to-end solution providers, which protects against vendor lock-in. The ‘wait and see’ approach is not often viable for the end user,” he adds. Paul Ransted, who is a storage business technologist with Computer Associates (CA), claims he has witnessed trends in the hardware market, which could lead to potentially damaging vendor lock-in. “SANs are fairly new here in the Middle East,” he points out. “In Europe, for example, the market is a little more mature. People there [Europe] are expanding, running out of space and want more – but are locked into one vendor.” Ransted says the low cost of storage solutions is also encouraging potential vendor lock-ins. This arises from vendors initially selling a SAN solution to fit their hardware on to the company’s SAN, which fixes the end user’s problem at the given moment. Further down the line however, the customer will need more disc space and has to approach the original vendor, otherwise “they will have to learn another management tool to manage other SAN devices.” According to Ransted, end users are aware of the situation, but the belief is that the vendors who served their needs the first time around are best placed to do so again. Finally, the general consensus is that storage management solutions are easy to deploy and they do not require changes to the installed storage infrastructure and stored data. Dealing with proprietary components could become costly and time-consuming, however products are evolving rapidly and prices are dropping. Access rates are growing faster than capacity and storage growth is outpacing IT headcount, while business applications and service levels are becoming more dependent on storage performance and availability. The IT industry, moreover, is tasked with creating a real time enterprise and internal storage utility. Vendor ‘lock-in’ is something end users should rightly be wary of, but provided end users understands their own needs and the ability of the provider to match these; it ceases to become an issue.||**||

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