The tera-hawks

A recent rumour that networking giant Cisco is set to pay US$43 billion to acquire leading storage vendor EMC has once more put storage in the spotlight. Whether the rumour is true or not, the speculation shows that storage is one of the hot topics in IT. And while vendors jostle for market share, end users put their businesses on the line when investing in solutions.

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By  Simon Duddy Published  July 20, 2005

|~|Phippe_m.jpg|~|“I wouldn’t like to be a data centre manager these days. Many years ago I worked in an operations role, but managing storage for the medium or large customer has become a daunting task. Storage administrators and data centre managers must deal with regulatory compliance and 40% data growth, with no end in sight to that growth.” - Jason Phippen, director of product marketing for Computer Associates.|~|While the server and networking markets have slowed in recent years, storage and related industries have continued to boom. Indicative of this is the rapid rise of storage software. According to IDC, the worldwide storage software market grew 14.9% year-over-year to US$2.1 billion in the first quarter of 2005, marking the sixth consecutive quarter of double-digit year-over-year growth. This rapacious growth has sparked furious activity among storage vendors and led Symantec to merge with data protection specialist Veritas and Sun to buy StorageTek for US$4.1 billion. It has also prompted speculation that Cisco might buy EMC to get a bigger footprint in the market. While the deal seems unlikely, EMC is simply too big to be comfortably swallowed, even by Cisco, there is no doubt that the network vendor has been moving aggressively into storage. It has made a string of lower profile acquisitions such as Actona, FineGround and TopSpin. A big money move by a non-storage vendor into the market would prove very disruptive and if Cisco has been using the storage switch market as a practice run, storage vendors should certainly sit up and take notice. The vendor has been able to build significant market share in just two years, ruffling the feathers of more established players such as McData and Brocade. According to the Dell’Oro Group, in its study of Storage Area Network (SAN) Fibre Channel (FC) switches and Host Bus Adapters (HBAs) sales, McData and Brocade still occupy first and second rank respectively, but Cisco is a strong third with a growth rate of 36% between 2003 and 2004. The storage world is slowly moving towards IP, as are other IT and communications environments, and this has helped Cisco. In the storage world, SAN (sometimes known as director) switches are used to connect large storage environments. The rise of iSCSI as a connection in this environment has helped Cisco as it facilitates data transfer over intranets and allows the management of storage over long distances. This feature has proved useful to enterprises in the region, with Qatari oil and gas firm RasGas a prime example. RasGas has two sites in Qatar, which are 90km apart, with Qtel offering an MPLS line between the two. It is not practical for RasGas to have a fibre connection between the installations, so IP has to be considered. This connection has proved to be the bottleneck for RasGas in terms of data transfer and storage rather than any point within either storage environment. “We are evaluating the Cisco MDS 9500 Director for our SAN and network attached storage (NAS) environments. It is important that our solution can handle both iSCSI and FC. We want to use the connection to link two storage environments and provide disaster recovery. We are also looking at Brocade,” says Rami Youssef Haje Omar, head of desktop and network information systems at RasGas in Qatar. While iSCSI is important to Cisco, the vendor has also been able to leverage its end-to-end network offering to win business in the niche director market. “Our end-to-end offering is central in helping us to expand in the storage switch space. We entered the market in the last two years and have been successful in this short space of time but this has not been at the expense of high performance solutions,” says Ghazi Atallah, general manager at Cisco Middle East. McData and Brocade are feeling the heat from Cisco’s competition, but have been able to hit back and have maintained strong positions in the market. “Cisco is targeting us, but we believe we have better products and a wider portfolio,” says Jean Jaques Effosse, senior manager, EMEA Channel development, McData. “Plus we have a better compatibility matrix. A customer may have a legacy StorageTek tape library, Sun servers, EMC disks and you must guarantee the director will work with them all. For a newcomer it is easy to certify on the latest products, but it takes a huge effort to certify on legacy equipment and, after all, that’s what customers often have,” he explains. This is undoubtedly an exciting time for storage vendors, but the explosion in data that is causing this, is more likely to cause anxiety for end users. “I wouldn’t like to be a data centre manager these days,” says Jason Phippen, director of product marketing for Computer Associates (CA). “Many years ago I worked in an operations role, but managing storage for the medium or large customer has become a daunting task. Storage administrators and data centre managers must deal with 24 hour by seven days a week systems, regulatory compliance and 40% data growth, with no end in sight to that growth,” he explains. The storage boom is hitting small businesses as well as the enterprise, with this segment projected for huge growth in the coming years, see the bar chart titled ‘Money spent by SMBs on storage worldwide’ for evidence. Increased need in this space is likely to drive the nascent field of storage services, with several players in the region, gearing up for the expected demand. One of these is eCompany, which has identified running storage systems as a major cost as well as investment in hardware and software. “For small companies, owning a high-end solution is not feasible,” says Abbas Taher, product manager at eCompany. “Storage as a service offers customers a ‘pay as you grow’ option that meets their needs and minimises investment,” he says. Soubhi Abdulkarim, IT manager at the Aspire sports academy has been at the sharp end of this dramatic data growth. Aspire is a school for ambitious young sportsmen, which opened in September 2004. It aims to produce international class footballers and Olympic standard athletes. The college uses up to date technology to assess the athletes, including creating video archives of pupils in action, which can be called upon to analyse performance. Aspire also handles video and other data from similar colleges across the world, leading to a spiraling demand for storage, which has already exceeded expectations. “We started with 4 Terabytes of disk space and we’re already out of space. We expect to exceed 100 Terabytes in one or two years,” says Soubhi Abdulkarim, IT manager at the Aspire sports academy. “We are starting to implement policies and processes to control the storage situation, we want to be able to automate processes. We’re worried not just about data in server room, but also data on USB disks, where we have less control,” he adds. This feeling of losing control is central to IT professionals’ concerns. The issue of capacity is a serious one, but if that was the only problem, it could be solved simply. The real problem is the issues caused by burgeoning data – backing-up data effectively, retrieving it, using the appropriate storage media for each data type, not storing useless data unnecessarily. These are the questions that are vexing end users and no amount of disks can provide answers. The general consensus is that software is becoming the key element in the storage world. With disk prices dropping and hardware compatibility increasing, end users generally feel that hardware issues are becoming easier as management becomes more difficult. “Disk storage costs are decreasing but management costs are increasing as software becomes the focus of development,” says Salem Al Rowaihi, IT strategic planner at Saudi Aramco. However, not all commentators are ready to write off innovation and value in hardware. “Hardware not a commodity, there is very high technology going into hardware. There are platforms available with Petabytes of capacity and 800Mbytes capacity tape cartridges. We have 4Gbytes/s connections and in a few years we’ll have 8Gbytes/s,” says Daniel Sazbon, manager of SAN sales EMEA for IBM. While hardware is still developing, according to IBM, most vendors as switching attention to software as disks become more of a commodity. After all, it is software that offers answers to the storage problems in the enterprise. How convincing these answers are is open to discussion, however. Consultant Jon William Toigo, who was the keynote speaker at the StorageWorld Middle East event, which took place in Dubai at the end of May, has cast doubt on vendors’ solutions. He urges users to be more proactive with their storage choices and not be mandated by what vendors are offering. “There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. Different needs have different requirements. Vendors should fit to clients’ needs, not the other way around,” Toigo says. A key area for end users in storage is avoiding vendor lock-in, but when buying the latest solutions, proprietary solutions are almost a must. Some companies do advocate a standards-based approach, however, such as Dell. “Dell discourages a vendor lock-in strategy. Our standards-based approach encourages customers to select appropriate technology for today’s needs,” says Andy Rhodes, head of enterprise products EMEA Dell. Most end users will face a maze of proprietary protocols in storage. For example, if data is written to tape using a storage software by company X, users are not likely to be able to use company Y’s software to retrieve the information, which obviously promotes lock-in. It is possible for end users to deploy virtualisation software that will allow them to read data from disk arrays from different vendors but if users seek to utilise higher end software features they will have to put faith in one vendor, as storage software standards only cover basic feature levels. Sceptics could argue this simply transfers the hardware-based lock-in to software-based variety. “Vendor lock-in is unavoidable with information lifecycle management (ILM). However, many customers deal with this lock-in by creating information silos based on different vendors’ technology in order to maintain price leverage. This brings its own complexities such as the need to maintain service contracts with each company,” says Phippen. On top of this, there is bewilderment in the market, with end users not always sure whether they are getting locked in when they buy. Phippen says marketing machines create buzz phrases like virtualisation and ILM and each vendor puts its own interpretation on it, creating confusion, for end users. Phippen sees ILM as a discipline rather than a solution, and insists that enterprises that don’t understand and plan for their own needs and have no chance of applying a technology fix to their storage woes. It is important to emphasise the potential pitfalls of storage technology investments, but equally vital to highlight that the modern enterprise will not survive long without such a solution. If the enterprise is going to solve the management issues highlighted earlier, some clever software is essential. This is particularly the case for taking out the rubbish in the enterprise. Much of the data stored by companies is replicated or useless and to eliminate this manually would be a gigantic and impractical task. Storage resource management (SRM) solutions can be used to automate this task. It can eliminate information according to a number of parameters, for example, taking out data created before a certain date, or deleting duplicate data. “If a company backs everything up and 40% of the data is rubbish, then 40% of the disk space is wasted. Furthermore, you have taken 40% more time than necessary to back the info up, and will take 40% more time to restore it,” explains Phippen. The aim of software storage solutions is to save time and money and allow the business to protect and derive value from its data. IT professionals must look behind the hype of each solution and determine exactly how it can benefit them. Examples of how the solution has worked well for other companies may not be relevant and assertions based on hypothetical situations should be taken with a pinch of salt. There is a thirst in the enterprise for effective solutions, but rushing to quench this thirst could create more problems than it solves. One point that no one in the business, either on the end user or vendor side disputes, is the need to carefully plan for the future. This can in part be achieved by investing in solutions that can be upgraded easily and at manageable rates. But again, proper planning and processes is at the core of healthy storage growth. The unpalatable truth for many is that no solution can excuse an enterprise from putting in serious man hours building a storage plan and ensuring that the employees can access the data they need as required. “Modularity is important in storage solutions because no vendor wants to hear a customer come back to them one year after an implementation and say that they need a forklift upgrade. Planning for storage needs is difficult, so flexible solutions are essential if a company’s storage is to grow in a controlled way,” says Qais Gharaibeh, district partner sales manager, EMC Middle East. Storage is high stakes, big business for both vendors and end users. Theoretically vendors serve themselves best by giving enterprises what they need. The danger is that in the rush to hit short-term sales targets, vendors will sell what solutions they can to customers, even if it is not necessarily the best fit for them. Frankly, it’s no good crying to vendors about this, the onus is on end users to get smart about storage, invest the time to know their requirements and seek out the right solution as aggressively as an under-pressure salesperson might sell them the wrong one.||**||

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