Big Storage Opens Up


This might seem like a no-brainer, but historically HP has not heavily involved solution providers in the sale of its HP StorageWorks XP Disk Array line (version 24000 became available this month). As with other vendors, HP's high-end storage solutions traditionally have been sold direct or implemented by multibillion-dollar systems integrators such as Accenture and EDS. In HP's case, that's meant no prelaunch technical training or advance preview of product specifications.

That's changing, and not just at HP. Buoyed by technical advancements that have simplified these elaborate systems and driven by fast-evolving customer needs, more solution providers than ever are joining the ranks of high-end storage aficionados. Ask any manufacturer of these six-figure, heavy-metal disk arrays—IBM, EMC, Network Appliance, Hitachi Data Systems or HP—and they'll tell you that the upper echelon of storage systems are in demand by a broader demographic of customers, particularly in the midmarket. And that's where vendors need the channel the most.

"Today around the world, the majority of this business is and has been direct," says James Wilson, product manager for HP's XP line. "But we're making a concerted effort to increase volume through channel partners and working to that end to increase the percentage [they sell]."

One of the reasons that midsize VARs are now getting into the high-end storage game is that customers no longer need to be large corporations to have significant storage needs. Many midsize customers now run mission-critical applications, such as SAP, for manufacturing operations that must have constant uptime. Like multibillion-dollar corporations, they also need business continuity, disaster recovery, redundancy and enough storage to keep pace with an overflow of data while maintaining regulatory compliance.

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"The need for 24/7 operations is not just for the biggest of the big companies anymore," says Dave Reinsel, a storage analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. "It doesn't take much to put a front-end to your business on the Internet to drive revenue, but all of a sudden downtime becomes directly relevant to the health of your company."

Scaling Up and Down

The storage needs of customers ranging from five to 60,000 users are keeping John DeRocker busy these days. DeRocker, senior vice president of sales and marketing and a co-founder of Nexus Information Systems, counts high-end storage solutions as a major part of his business, driven in large part by the need for tiered disaster-recovery storage, server consolidation and virtualization.

Nexus sells EMC's high-end Symmetrix line along with NetApp's FAS 6000. The solution provider has spent years building up its high-end storage practice, becoming something of a specialist that's often called in to implement major storage setups for other solution providers as part of Ingram Micro's VentureTech Network.

"When you're talking about storage and backup, it's all about scale these days," DeRocker says. "The $1 million EMC SAN we sell to the enterprise is the same as the $40,000 system for the mom-and-pop company."

Modularity and scale are hallmarks of NetApp's approach to the high end. The company introduced its FAS6000 series of disk arrays 18 months ago with a technology called FlexShare, which allows partners to partition the machines on a per-volume basis so that a single piece of infrastructure can handle a wide variety of workloads. The systems are aimed at providing support for mission-critical applications environments, such as Microsoft Exchange Server and SQL Server, and SAP.

NetApp has structured these storage systems so that partners can add onto the core infrastructure on an as-needed basis, keeping costs down and only selling customers what they need at any point in time. The other key element is not requiring customers to purchase another copy of the original high-end storage system in order to do the mirroring necessary to add a new capability. For example, if a customer needs to fire up disaster-recovery capabilities at some point after the original FAS6000 is deployed, NetApp allows partners to sell a lower-end storage system that provides the disaster recovery as a complement to the high-end system.

"Storage is half of the expense in IT, so you can't afford to buy gold-plated stuff everywhere," says Chris Bennett, vice president of core systems at NetApp. "Because it's a Lego-like approach, partners can package and address customer pain points in a cost-effective way, rather than pulling out the sledgehammer every time." Management 101

New technologies and features, such as NetApp's FlexShare, that simplify deployment, management and use of high-end storage are driving much of the new opportunity for the channel. IBM, for example, has focused a lot of its efforts on improving the user interface for its IBM System Storage DS8000 series, as well as greatly simplifying the process for setting up mirrors for the system, according to David Vaughn, IBM's manager of worldwide product marketing for disk, NAS and SAN.

"Setting up mirrors, both at the local and remote locations, can be very complex," Vaughn says. "We've put new replication capabilities into our IBM Tivoli Total Storage Productivity Center that gives our partners one place to set up mirrors for both sides and to do so consistently and with a much better chance to have it up and running correctly the first time."

IBM is looking to expand the number of partners it has selling the DS8000 series and is counting on making the product easier to use and implement as key to that growth.

Hitachi Data Systems, another venerable high-end storage player, says its success in wringing complexity out of the management and provisioning processes has led to a budding business among Web 2.0 companies that are consuming massive amounts of storage—some in excess of hundreds of terabytes in just a few months.

EMC is taking a similar approach to ease of use. It's selling complementary management software for its high-end Symmetrix DMX-3 line that gives partners one interface from which to add new devices, manage devices, monitor and report on the performance of the storage system. The Symmetrix Management Console 6.0—just released as an upgrade this spring—is just one part of a simplification strategy EMC has put forward that includes optimizing performance of high-end systems. One feature is aimed at increasing the memory in the system to reduce the amount of input/output traffic to each disk. This allows larger-capacity disk drives to be used for the same workload it previously took many disks to support.

These changes lower costs, which helps EMC's partners sell, says Bob Wambach, EMC's senior director of Symmetrix product marketing.

"It's not like any mom-and-pop shop can do this type of work, but today we have a wider variety of partners that can capably and successfully sell, install and support our equipment," Wambach adds.

Open Systems Technologies (OST) could be the poster child for solution providers in the high-end enterprise storage space. Over the past five years, OST, of Grand Rapids, Mich., has grown revenue from less than $10 million to an expected $40 million this year. Much of that growth has come through enterprise storage sales, chiefly HP's StorageWorks XP Disk Array line, but also IBM's and NetApp's top-shelf systems, according to Jim VanderMey, vice president of technical operations at OST.

VanderMey says HP's product has provided such reliability and uptime that OST has had some big disaster-recovery wins in the health-care industry in Michigan, including HMO Priority Health and Michigan Metropolitan Hospital in Grand Rapids. The simplification of the products across the board has been a boost, he says.

"Traditional enterprise arrays have been architected for high availability and scalability and not for ease of use," says VanderMey, who took part in HP's early adopter training program for the latest release of the XP product. "But what we've seen is vendors working hard to solve management and provisioning problems with a combination of software and tools."

Ironically, VanderMey says OST, which exclusively has done enterprise-related storage solutions, is setting its sights downmarket because midsize customers have reached the point of having essentially the same storage requirements as much larger clients. "They have grown up, basically," he says.

That trend bodes well for a broader swath of solution providers. As midmarket companies clamor for storage capacity with the highest-level features, vendors will increasingly turn to the channel to cover that market footprint. Consider Lenexa, Kan.-based Tallgrass Technologies, where high-end enterprise storage array sales are increasing about 10 percent to 20 percent a year based on work that won't be in short supply anytime soon.

"You'd be surprised by how many large companies still have fragmented storage and how many don't have centralized storage or even a road map for that," says Chris Jones, account executive at Tallgrass Technologies.

For small and midsize storage solution providers, it's time to move up.