How Storage Became the Center of the Universe

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During one of my earliest interviews on the storage beat, a storage company CEO said this to me: "We used to stand around the coffee machine and figure out ways to get out of storage. Now, we are the center of the universe."

I have waited a long time to get that quote in a story. Here is my chance; never has it been more appropriate. The typically small--and somewhat closed--world of storage vendors and managers is seeing a surge of newcomers. It is safe to say the number of startups cropping up in this space is a jaw-dropper.

Analyst Robert Gray of International Data Corp. has spent the past year tracking the numbers. When I interviewed him last March, he had tallied about 50 companies. When I interviewed him in January, that number shot up to about 150.

But other anecdotes have surfaced from my daily conversations with CEOs and public relations people. Just last week, startup InterSAN CEO Chris Melville recounted the unexpected ease he is having in getting an audience with the venture capital community.

"Usually it is very difficult," Melville says. "[But now nobody ever turns me down. Storage is sexy all of a sudden."

A representative at Trainer Public Relations says the company just signed on six new clients, three of them storage-based. When I started covering storage three years ago, one of the least difficult parts of the beat was trying to remember the number of players in the space --there weren't many and they were all big names.

Now, there are Maranti Networks, Pirus Networks, Storigen Systems, Z-force Communications, BluArc, Nishan Systems, Cereva Networks and Datacore Software. Those are just a handful using their venture capital money to develop products in areas like network-attached storage, storage-area networks, IP storage and the newest and most popular of the lot--storage-area management (SAM).

What does all this mean? Besides the obvious (competition breeds innovation), it can either bring clarification or confusion to an industry not known for getting along. It will be interesting to see if and how all these newcomers will influence the dynamics among the storage heavyweights--like EMC and Compaq Computer.

A case in point is how the SAM market is shaping up. Companies like EMC and Compaq and Hitachi Data Systems have been sharing their APIs with ISVs for years now. But the situation becomes a little dicey when it comes to sharing their APIs with each other.

Compaq and EMC have entered into an API cross-license agreement, but Compaq has made it clear it does not share EMC's vision to build its middleware WideSky management software. There is a lot of distrust among the veteran vendors that EMC is building a proprietary middleware under the guise of open-management software. These companies need to take a lesson from the Fibre Channel industry: while everyone was squabbling about standards, the networking community joined the market with a new technology: IP storage.

The same could happen with management software. While the veteran vendors are grinding their axes, newcomers like InterSAN and TrueSAN Networks are happily trotting to customers and saying, "Hey, we don't care what hardware you operate on, want to buy some software to manage it?"

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