Inside the Mind of the Storage VAR


The few. The proud. The storage VARs. These kinds of experts are a rare breed. And they also are becoming more well known. All the interop-erability headaches plaguing storage today are creating a

great basis for a storage-integration business model. According to VARBusiness' 2002 State of the Market survey, 7 percent of a solution provider's revenue and profit, on average, was attributable to storage in 2001. Larger VARs (revenue of more than $10 million) are more likely than their smaller counterparts (revenue less than $10 million) to rely on storage as a source of both revenue and profit (at 10 percent, respectively). And it looks likely those numbers may increase in the coming years. Today, those select few have chosen to keep their focus on helping companies connect disparate pools of storage, use disk capacity more efficiently and harness storage resources into a leaner machine. They are the storage integrators,and they are benefiting from the intense competition brewing among

storage vendors.

Specialized storage integrators such as Norcross, Ga.-based Solarcom are more in demand, largely because companies went down a path of deploying unmanaged and unplanned storage,a consequence of trying to get a handle on avalanches of data created by the Internet. When faced with a relentless demand for more capacity, the quickest solution was to build server farms and just reach for more disk drives. Direct-attached storage poses a particular problem because unused disk space on a Unix platform can't be shared with a Windows-based device. That translates into wasted disk space. Storage integrators say that vendors are not stepping over each other to solve that inefficiency hassle.

Other customers, looking to move away from direct-attached storage, turned to storage area networks (SANs). But instead of building large configurations, they constructed small islands of SANs as a way to test the relatively new method of consolidation. Whether they added capacity to existing servers or designed small-scale SANs, IT managers were left with pools of storage that could not be shared.

"Most SANs today are bigger versions of direct-attached storage," says Farrell Macon, director of storage technology for Solarcom, which boasts $300 million in annual revenue. "We see lots of multiple SANs scattered across systems. A truly interoperable SAN is a rarity today. One thing about SANs, if you don't have good management, adding capacity does not lower your total cost of ownership."

Most integrators use products from the big players, including Brocade Communications Systems, Compaq Computer, EMC, Hitachi Data Systems, IBM, Legato Systems, Tivoli and Veritas Software. But the device standard that gets those products to work together seamlessly is nowhere near a reality. The next sea change in storage is expected to come with the development of virtualization, the ability to create logical pools of storage across various devices and platforms. That technology, however, is still maturing.

"Vendors are out there competing like cats and dogs," says Dan Bagot, senior partner at Trilliant Group, a storage-management consultant in Cincinnati. Customers want them to coexist, but that is a difficult threshold for vendors to cross. They don't want to play nice. They want to put each other out of business,"

They study the competition, dwell on details and think constantly about tomorrow's storage requirements. What else goes through the mind of a storage VAR? Here are some thoughts:

'I Can Be a Hero'

Often, storage integrators win over customers by solving immediate problems. They become knights in shining armor for stranded customers. For instance, ITIS Services, based in Norwalk, Conn., helped a company with a disk failure that knocked out the entire disk array on New Year's Eve. Ultimately, the company replaced the low-end, midrange product with a Hitachi Data Systems Lightening 9900 that ITIS Services sold it.

"We gave them hardware from our data center as a loaner to get them through the week," says F. William Tilt, vice president of development and professional services at ITIS Services. "As a consequence of just being a good neighbor, we were able to continue a relationship with these folks."

'I Can Manage This Project'

Customers want storage integrators to manage storage resources more effectively. Integrators such as Trilliant and StorNet, Englewood, Colo., work with clients in assessing the infrastructure, and in designing and building a solution, as well as in training staff. More important, they help design an architecture that takes into account future storage needs.

"We isolate the gap between the client's current environment and its future needs," Trilliant's Bagot says. "Then we recommend a solution to close those gaps."

One of Solarcom's customers had a typical problem. It had multiple data centers, each containing islands of SANs focused on one application. It hired Solarcom to build one interoperable SAN for each data center. It's a typical customer story among storage integrators. StorNet recently took on a customer that had five data centers scattered throughout the United States. Each had a different way of doing backup and recovery. One would use Computer Associates' ArcServe on 4-millimeter tape, while another would use

Legato on 8-millimeter tape.

"We consolidated them into five large tape libraries. Then we used the same backup application in each location," says Derek Gamradt, CTO at StorNet.

'I Am An Expert'

Taking advantage of interoperability is one side of the integrator's business tactic; the other is capitalizing on the lack of storage expertise. Colleges and universities are not churning out storage experts. So, where do you find such expertise? Most companies either have to homegrow their storage managers or use partners. A technology consultant at Trilliant has an average of 12 years' experience. Those that design an architecture have at least 25 years' experience.

"These are seasoned people, and they're expensive,"

Bagot says.

A storage manager's mind works a bit differently from that of a networking person. The landscape they oversee looks a bit like this: two network interface cards or host-bus adapters each attached to switches with redundant data paths to redundant RAID controllers attached to disk arrays. "Storage guys are bolted together by a high need for redundancy and data protection," Gamradt says. "We're a bit paranoid, because we always make sure our bases our covered."

But the convergence of networking and storage is becoming popular again, as companies begin to push products that transfer storage data via the iSCSI protocol. That continued integration also means the Iron Curtain between network and storage engineers will have to come down.

"Today, the two don't talk," Macon says. "The storage guys either are going to learn a lot about networking or the networking guys are going to learn a little about storage."