The scale-out network-attached storage (NAS) market aims for a best-of-both-worlds approach: Combine scalability previously reserved for storage-area networks with a file server's strength in managing unstructured data.
Resellers, until recently, have faced limited choices in this storage niche, as the available products tend to support larger enterprises. Recent developments aim to change this state of affairs, however, as some vendors now sell scale-out NAS technology more in line with the pocketbooks and technical capabilities of small and medium-sized organizations.
Products from vendors such as Gridstore Inc. and Scale Computing offer modular scale-out architectures that let customers start small with a handful of storage modules and then purchase additional units as data accumulates. Such vendors offer an alternative to traditional storage systems that are more monolithic in nature. Current products in the space employ virtual versus physical storage controllers and use grid or clustering approaches to link the storage modules.
A scale-out architecture does more than address a pressing near-term need to satisfy a customer's storage appetite. Industry executives also suggest the products may also position resellers for broader technology initiatives such as "software-defined data centers" and converged storage/computing platforms.
Search for a solution
"There's a whole [set of users] that came out with a lot of enterprise-like data needs but without enterprise-level budgets," noted Jon Garcia, account executive with Consiliant Inc., an IT infrastructure services and solutions provider based in Irvine, Calif.
Initially, Consiliant, which has a specialization in storage and data protection, positioned tier-one storage architectures as solutions for such companies. Garcia noted that many customers had been exposed to enterprise storage and expressed a desire for high-availability architectures and the ability to scale resources. But those companies, he added, lacked the financial resources to buy a $100,000 system to store 20 TB of data.
The company continued scouring the market for options and aligned with Isilon Systems, a scale-out NAS vendor. Isilon offered modular technology that supported NAS protocols "where the data growth was happening in the unstructured realm," Garcia recalled.
That alliance ended, however, with EMC Corp.'s acquisition of Isilon in 2010. That buyout put Isilon on more of an enterprise trajectory, Garcia noted. He said Isilon always had an enterprise mind-set from a features perspective, but it approached the midmarket early on, especially in verticals such as entertainment and health/life sciences.
The EMC acquisition raised some political issues with other Consiliant vendor partners, most notably Hitachi Data Systems. The company was also concerned with the potential for reduced visibility with EMC as a smaller regional VAR, Garcia said.
Consiliant now works with Scale Computing to address the scale-out needs of small and midsized accounts. The companies have been working together for a little more than a year.
"[The relationship] gives us the ability to address that midmarket," Garcia said.
Garcia said Scale Computing's products are fairly simple to install and give customers the ability to manage their infrastructure with fewer resources. That's an important consideration, as customers in the mid-tier category may have less than five IT staffers, he added.
Kyle King, chief executive officer of NexusStor, embarked on a similar storage journey as he looked for an SMB-friendly scale-out NAS product. He said he came across a couple of vendors that used a scale-out architecture, but he sought a more cost-effective platform.
NexusStor, a data storage, backup and disaster recovery solutions provider based in Memphis, Tenn., evaluated Gridstore's storage products and brought the company onboard late last year. He cited Gridstore's simplicity and price point, which he said typically comes in at 50% of the cost of a Dell or EMC solution.
"We are reaching a new norm from a business standpoint," King said. "We are going to have to do a lot more with a lot less money and personnel. As such, we really need to look toward technology that offers greater efficiencies."
Scale-out meets channel
Kelly Murphy, chief executive officer of Gridstore, said resellers such as NexusStor have had few scale-out NAS options geared toward their SMB client base. He said Isilon launched the scale-out NAS sector, but focused on larger accounts and sold much of its products directly with heavy pre-sales and post-sales support.
"Scale-out hasn't really come down market and leveraged channels to a wide degree," Murphy said.
Gridstore kicked off its Accelerate Partner Program in November 2012 and aims to attract 40 to 50 channel partners by the end of this year.
King said Gridstore’s technology could play a couple of roles for his clients. For one, Gridstore could supplement a customer's existing storage infrastructure. A customer might find that the price of adding an expansion tray to a legacy storage system may cost more than a Gridstore deployment. In that case, Gridstore could absorb the additional capacity.
Gridstore could also serve as a cost-effective, disk-based backup target, King noted. He plans to put Gridstore in competition with deduplication appliances or storage arrays from vendors such as Dell. In addition, King sees Gridstore as a storage option for organizations that need an easy-to-use, centrally managed storage system for virtualized environments.
King said he expects his company to close its first Gridstore sales this quarter.
Scale Computing, which focuses on small and midsized customers, also cultivates channel partners. The company for most of its history has sold scale-out storage systems that support both NAS and SAN. And while it continues its storage-only line, it now markets a unified compute and storage product dubbed HC3. Scale Computing refers to this offering as a "hyperconverged" infrastructure product. HC3 nodes integrate server, storage and virtualization (Red Hat's KVM hypervisor) components. The minimum cluster size is three nodes, with additional nodes added to the cluster to meet computing or storage demands.
Patrick Conte, executive vice president and general manager at Scale Computing, said the company signed 500 partners over the past four years as a storage company. As Scale Computing builds a channel for HC3, which debuted in August 2012, the company will initially focus on a much smaller number of allies. Conte said 47 of the company’s existing partners will become charter members of its "platinum" program for HC3 resellers.
A separate partner tier will house storage resellers, but Scale Computing will provide opportunities for those resellers to move to the platinum program.
Consiliant's Garcia said he has seen two types of customers thus far for HC3: previous scale-out storage customers and those that seek to change their server management strategy. That latter group emphasizes the server side and views storage as a value-added component.
Garcia said Consiliant has been able to wrap services around HC3.
"We are finding more opportunities to assist with the prioritization and migration of applications, watching that process, and serving as the trusted adviser to see them through implementation," Garcia said.
While Scale Computing lets resellers offer a "data center in a box," Gridstore contends it offers the channel a software-driven take on storage.
Gridstore's technology lets customers assemble storage grids consisting of "blocks" that are added to an Ethernet network. Virtualized controllers run on any customer machine that needs to access the storage grid. Murphy said his company has taken the software out of the traditional, monolithic storage box and placed it in a flexible storage system that customers can shape as they grow.
"What people are really looking for is better utilization, better economies of scale and more flexibility in the IT infrastructure," Murphy said. "That is what a software-defined data center is about and a subcomponent is software-defined storage."
"The storage industry has, from a hardware standpoint, been further and further commoditized," King added. "The emphasis is certainly on ... the software capabilities."
John Moore has written on business and technology topics for more than 25 years.
This was first published in January 2013