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Data backup and recovery is not a glamorous part of the storage industry by any means, but it remains a mainstay of solution providers' businesses and will continue to do so for the future.
Regardless of what new technology or service a customer employs--disaster recovery, e-mail archiving, compliance and e-discovery, replication, server virtualization--none of them work unless data is backed up safely and is recoverable.
And because so many storage services depend on those safe and recoverable backups, it is fast becoming a service itself.
For instance, managed storage, which solution providers named as the fastest-growing and most profitable technology, consists mainly of helping customers find ways to manage the backup and recovery process.
This includes online data backups, which solution providers can either provide as a service on their own or contract to third-party providers, and which can be done in conjunction with customers' existing storage software and hardware.
In fact, linking local storage hardware with a third-party, Internet-based backup service is the most popular way to do storage as a service, followed closely by linking local storage hardware with a service provided by solution providers themselves, according to the State of Technology: Storage survey.
And that helps explain why four of the top five backup/recovery software vendors have all acquired storage service providers in the last couple of years.
Solution providers are constantly adding new tools to their data backup and recovery practices. One tool widely adopted in the last year or so is continuous data protection (CDP), a technology that allows changes to data to be backed up either immediately after they are made, or within a set time afterwards. Data that becomes lost or corrupted can be instantly recovered without the need to do a full restore.
Greg Knieriemen, vice president of marketing at Chi Corp., a Cleveland-based solution provider, said CDP brings customers faster recoveries and shrinks backup windows--huge benefits as the amount of data stored continues to grow.
CDP also cuts the cost of backup software licenses, Knieriemen said. "A company with 500 servers traditionally needs 500 backup licenses," he said. "With CDP, changes can be copied to a central server, which is backed up, saving the cost of almost 500 licenses. That's very significant."
Other new technologies, such as disk-based storage devices, with or without attached tape, have changed the data backup and recovery business, said John Zammett, president of HorizonTek, a Huntington, N.Y.-based solution provider.
Overall, he said, traditional backup and recovery is a very stable business, Zammett said. "It's not a growth business, because prices keep going down," he said. "We still ship as many units as we ever have."
The allure of a single solution to manage multivendor SANs is strong, but it's an area whose potential continues to be held back while better tools become available.
Storage resource management and SAN management, two related tools often lumped together under the SAN management category, is software that can manage multivendor SANs under a single user interface, allowing such services as configuration management, capacity trending, troubleshooting, dynamic workload management and performance monitoring.
SAN management is No. 6 on solution providers' list of storage technologies with the highest value-add potential, and No. 6 on partners' list of storage technologies they think are most profitable, according to the survey.
Yet the category barely makes the Top 10 list of technologies with the greatest growth potential because of its primary market being in the enterprise, with some bleed into the midrange.
The biggest holdback to SAN management is its proprietary nature, said Gordon McKemie, owner of Ohio Valley Storage Consultants, an Anchorage, Ky.-based solution provider.
"It's based on whatever disk array each vendor has," McKemie said. "Customers talk about interoperability between multivendor SANs, but most people use the SAN vendors' products."
That focus on vendor-specific SAN management tools shows in the survey. Of the top 10 vendors of SAN management software, only three--Symantec Corp., Cupertino, Calif., CA Inc., Islandia, N.Y. and Microsoft Corp.--are not tied to a specific storage hardware vendor.
It's a situation that has to change, especially as more and more data center environments become virtualized, said Keith Norbie, director of the storage division of Nexus Information Systems, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based solution provider.
"The new school of SAN management has to be done from a VMware construct," Norbie said. "It will encompass classic Fibre Channel, but will also include iSCSI and eventually Fibre Channel over Ethernet. Customers will have multiple vendors, all hooked together in an infrastructure that changes day to day."
Ideally, SAN management tools should be as ubiquitous as network management tools, said Dan Carson, vice president of marketing and business development at Open Systems Solutions Inc., a Willow Grove, Pa.-based solution provider.
"In the network world, you can use tools to truly touch the network and manage it," Carson said. "But the SAN and iSCSI management tools are nowhere near as mature. I think there's a huge need in the marketplace for a heterogeneous tool set."
The best way to increase profits in the storage business is to add services. Nearly 60 percent of solution providers surveyed for the 2008 State of Technology: Storage survey say that attaching services and other high-value components to their sales was the key driver of profit growth, while nearly one-third said higher profits came specifically from shifting their business to focus more on services.
According to the survey, just about half of solution providers currently sell deployment services as part of their storage business, while more than 40 percent sell managed storage services and more than 40 percent sell maintenance services. However, storage managed services seems to be the fastest growing of the three, with 45 percent of solution providers not currently offering managed services expecting to add them within the next 12 months.
It's not hard to see why. Of all the different storage products and services solution providers can sell, managed services is at the top in terms of both sales growth and profitability expectations, the survey found.
And customers rely on the services that solution providers offer as much as the solution providers do, said Hope Hayes, president of Alliance Technology Group LLC, Hanover, Md.
"Customers think about virtualization," she said. "But we really help them think it through beyond just virtualization. We look at all the ways we can help customers use it."
Same with adding new services such as data de-duplication, Hayes said. "Customers adding storage and servers want to add de-dupe," she added. "But then they are not sure if they are doing it correctly. They need our help to do it right."
Sometimes, customers who need a storage-related service are better off not knowing they are getting it, Hayes said. She said her company approaches customers about assessment services very carefully for that reason.
"If we say, 'Let's do an assessment,' they say, 'No way, you're just trying to mess us up with services,'" Hayes said. "Instead, we go in and talk to them about their perceived storage and server needs, and then do the assessment."
Storage solution providers can take advantage of several new services available to their customers, said Mark Teter, CTO of Advanced Systems Group, a Denver-based solution provider.
One of those is helping them increase their data center efficiency, and, therefore, reducing their overall energy costs, Teter said. Others include helping customers migrate data from old technology to new technology, compliance and data leak protection, and disaster recovery, he said.
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