A spate of storage mega-mergers coupled with technology innovations aimed at simplifying data center virtualization has created a perfect storm of opportunity for solution providers seeking to grow their business.
This storage M&A activity, including Hewlett-Packard Co.'s buyout of 3Par, sparked a battle by vendors to win over those same solution providers in a bid to both claim and preserve market share.
"You are seeing vendors seizing this opportunity," said Greg Schulz, founder and server analyst of the Server and StorageIO Group, in Stillwater, Minn. "Any storage vendor who is not trying to figure out a way to go after the installed base right now, [and] any vendor who doesn't have an aggressive plan while everything is in a state of flux isn't doing their job."
Wanted: Storage-savvy VARs
So, while it's nearly impossible to get IT solution providers to talk about this on the record for fear of business repercussions, many admit they are being courted more ardently than ever. It isn't just end-to-end powerhouses such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Dell that are doing the wooing, but best-of-breed players including EMC and NetApp. Smaller players like Nexsan and Compellent are also getting some hard looks from storage VARs.
No one is more vulnerable than the solution providers allied with the former Sun Microsystems, Schulz said. Poaching that started before Sun was bought by Oracle Corp. last January has now escalated to a whole new level, he said.
While the independent Sun had maintained a cadre of strong solution providers for its storage lineup, it was clear from day one under Oracle's leadership that many of those storage deals would go direct. Where Sun let its partners participate in storage renewals and maintenance, Oracle's policy is to take all that business direct. As a result, some Sun storage partners are in play, searching for new vendors both for existing and new customers.
All this action is good news for IT solution providers that are now looking at more choices to flesh out their storage lines at many different price points. "Intrinsically, solution providers want to have the same product that everyone else is selling, but they also need something that is different to make their message unique," Schulz said.
Randy Weis, senior solutions architect for the data management practice at GreenPages Technology Solutions, in Kittery, Maine, said innovative feature sets are his company's primary partnership motivators. But if a manufacturer is difficult to work with, GreenPages will not represent that line to its clients.
In particular, that means GreenPages needs things to be easy -- easy to register a deal, get pricing, and, of course, obtain the product in a timely fashion.
Many solution providers are finding innovative offerings at good price points from smaller vendors like Nexsan and Compellent, which these VARs say are easier to work with and more channel-friendly than the storage behemoths.
Storage must: Simplicity
What storage technologies are particularly compelling for businesses today? Weis said GreenPages customers are gravitating toward products that are easy to provision, migrate and manage.
"Our customers need storage systems that don't require special training and certification to manage, at least when it comes to managing on an everyday level," Weis said.
M.J. Shoer, president and virtual chief technology officer of Jenaly Technology Group Inc., in Portsmouth, N.H., said storage area networks are becoming more relevant in small and midsized businesses as virtualization becomes more common. For him, the knowledge that vendors will be able to help with technical support is critical. "The vendor support is the major mitigating factor in what we choose," said Shoer. "We need to do right by the customer."
Ralph Serzo, vice president of client technology for Primary Support in New York City, likewise reports that the need for shared storage is becoming more important to his clients. "It allows us to be more flexible as we build out the networks," he said. He works with his primary distributor, Ingram Micro, to help guide him toward choices that are appropriate. "It is all about making virtualization more efficient," Serzo said. For that reason, VMware certification is a must for any storage product that Primary Support recommends.
Move to unified storage
According to some solution providers, one thing to watch is the trend toward unified storage that supports both block and file applications. This move is driven by the rise of social media usage in the business world and the need to archive messages that happen to be in video, not just text.
In a sense, it's the same sort of thinking that drove the adoption of multifunction printing and imaging devices, said Schulz. "All the growth is around unstructured data. But you still need blocks for your SQL Server and Exchange databases. You don't want to have to get different products," he said.
A philosophical shift when it comes to storage tiering is also driving interest in solid state drives as part of storage devices even though the technology still commands a price premium. "Every storage vendor needs to have this capability," said GreenPages' Weis.
About the expert
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist in the New York area with more than 20 years experience. Her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, the International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Clancy was previously editor at Computer Reseller News, a B2B trade publication covering news and trends about the high-tech channel.