How To Choose a Data Backup Appliance That's Just Right

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When customers look to implement data protection software packages, many topics are often overlooked. Here, Pearring, manager of sales for STORServer, identifies key topics for solution providers to discuss with their customers, including support and maintenance, positioning, financial factors and more.—Jennifer Bosavage, editor

The primary providers of data protection continue to be software companies—Avamar, CommVault, Tivoli Storage Manager, Symantec and many others. All of them have someone pitching a bundle of hardware to go with their solutions, but in large part, the driving force behind them remains the software. It makes choosing a data backup appliance difficult. While the appliance intention appeared to be headed toward complete solutions, “purposely built” as packages, what we largely see in the market for competition against our own Enterprise Backup Appliance remains the same software technology pitches.

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Why did the big players get into the appliance business? They got into it because the smaller players—Barracuda, Unitrends and STORServer—built the business first.

Are all of the appliances and technology options the same? Given the basic designs of hardware, storage, connectivity and legacy software, aren’t they just a bunch of the same pieces put together by different folks? Interestingly, the simplification of backup solutions those of us in the industry have touted has yet to happen. The vast array of options that now complicate the goal for a simple appliance has muddied the ease of buying a solution.

I’m not talking about the low-end backup appliance boxes, which provide simple copy functions from production to a local or even remote disk. Those are here.

I’m talking about enterprise, midmarket corporate environments with dozens to hundreds of terabytes, multiple locations, virtualized servers and storage, and IT shops with more than a handful of employees. I’m talking about time-saving, centralized policies and efficient management tools implemented in a distributed world. I’m talking about service that covers the full gamut of the solution with one notification request, phone call or email.

The reasons for automating a typical “pieces and parts bundled solution” into an enterprise appliance identify the very elements for how appliances are different—software, technologies, hardware, support and the “other” parameters (listed below).

Software is the ultimate automation transformer of all time. It is just a bunch of weightless ones and zeros without hardware; but, frankly, the software rules. And, the software folks dominate the conversations at the enterprise level. The hardware bells and whistles are not really that interesting—disks dictate the storage in data protection now, and powerful servers are common commodities.

Consider the database engine of the software and its ability to manage complexity. Users expect a “relational” database in the software. The database must expand into dizzyingly huge sizes. Limits on growth send backup administrators into apoplexy. The big software providers who can’t get very large in their database will fall back on the hardware to solve this problem, forcing customers to buy a larger number of hardware implementations to get what they need.

In the appliance implementation of these software packages, though, many competitive topics get left out of the discussion between solution providers (including resellers) and their customers.

Next: What Topics To Discuss

Support and Maintenance—The cost of support should follow industry expectations of 12 to 18 percent each year for a comprehensive support contract. Many three-year contracts sold to customers may not include “diagnostics,” which determine the source of the problem. Costs should include everything inside the appliance and under one agreement, too. Diagnostic support defines the appliance offering. To diagnose means to root out the source of the problem, from software to hardware, and then proceed to fix that for the customer.

Positioning—Backup and data protection are sold in so many ways and with so many flavors today that positioning an appliance against competing backup appliances has become a huge, complicated endeavor. Appliance manufacturers should offer a features/benefits line-up including robust technologies, easy-to-use operations and head-to-toe support that can help buyers size up the competition.

Financial factors—The mix of return on investment and cost of ownership (ROI and COO) with backup still leads the buying decisions. Due to the breadth of licensing options and long-term, heterogeneous scalability, appliances can offer various pricing options. While customers praise the one-price elegance of the appliance, more financial benefits actually exist in the long-term ownership than the initial cost savings.

Quoting and configuration—Appliances strive to expand both capabilities and technologies into their architecture and implementation, while simplifying the finished product as it fits into increasingly complex environments. The configuration and quote experience counts toward a customer’s decision-making. The better solutions simplify the process through the expertise and assistance of well-trained representatives and resellers.

Licensing options—Customers with few machines and a lot of data do not want license pricing based upon customers with numerous machines and smaller amounts of data. Virtual machines crammed into one huge server should not be priced the same as one O/S on a similarly sized server. The offering of license options is an important part of the backup appliance consideration. The customer needs both machine-based and capacity licensing, and even more options.

Day in the life of an administrator—While the purchase of an enterprise backup appliance may seem to focus on price and features, the deciding factor often results from the efficiency and flow of operations. Management and operators look for how the appliance assists them in getting their jobs done and how practical the appliance accomplishes those tasks.

Model options—Not all customers are alike, and while the engine of the appliances may be the same, and even the hardware parts are similar, the implementation and licensing can be designed to fit differing customer expectations. Appliances that offer enterprise options for the larger companies will provide better scalability than small, departmental build-on appliances.

The software engine of an appliance defines the breadth of an offering at only one level. Use these other parameters to help decide which one fits you or your customer best.

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