Storage is frequently a weak link in virtualized environments because it creates performance bottlenecks and puts the brakes on projects, but these problems also spell opportunity for channel partners.
Storage optimization appliances are hitting the market in the form of flash storage-based hardware and software products. Resellers and integrators can latch on to this technology as an add-on sale with existing virtualization customers or as a way into new accounts. In addition, storage appliances offer some margin opportunity for the channel, but there is also money to be made selling services around the products.
Sweet spots for storage optimization appliances include virtualized databases and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) deployments, both of which can place huge demands on shared storage. Various storage optimization solutions will boost IOPS.
Storage optimization products provide a great solution for performance-oriented applications in which IOPS are key, said Raymund Charfauros, president of San Diego-based Storvantage. He believes such products complement a solutions provider's storage options. Storvantage focuses on storage consolidation and database applications, among other services, and works with Astute Networks in the flash-based storage appliance category.
"I see it as an arrow in the quiver of different storage solutions," Charfauros said.
Specialized storage optimization appliances
Specialized vendors such as Astute Networks, Nimble Storage, Pure Storage Inc., and Tintri offer flash-based storage appliances that target virtualized settings. Technology providers say the products, which may either strictly use flash or a combination of flash and disk, offer a more cost-effective way to support I/O-intensive applications. The alternative, tapping enterprise-class storage to support deployments such as VDI, can prove costly, they contend.
"In order to accommodate those desktops you end up provisioning from enterprise-class storage, which is orders of magnitude more expensive than provisioning a consumer-grade SATA drive in a PC or laptop," said Jim Damoulakis, chief technology officer at GlassHouse Technologies, a Southborough, Mass.-based data center consultancy. "It defeats the economic purpose," he said.
Even customers deploying enterprise-grade storage can run into I/O storms that occur when users start the workday and boot their VDI-driven desktop devices en masse, said Damoulakis. Those recurring demands for extremely high I/O can temporarily bring some enterprise storage arrays to their knees, he said.
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To solve this problem, use storage optimization technology. In addition to specialized appliance vendors, traditional enterprise storage vendors also recognize the need to increase I/O for some applications and now offer flash storage in their arrays.
Most general purpose storage platform vendors offer some form of flash solution, Damoulakis noted. But those products, with some exceptions, generally don't offer the same performance advantage of a special-purpose flash appliance. He said buyers will go for a flash appliance when they need higher levels of I/O, but opt for a flash-equipped general-purpose array when I/O demand is more moderate.
Some applications may call for both capacity and performance, and that is where a traditional storage array with some form of acceleration may provide the best bang for the buck.
On the other hand, expanding a storage array with flash-based drives can make for a pricey solution, Charfauros said. For example, Astute's ViSX appliance offers a much more competitive IOPS-per-dollar ratio for applications such as VDI, he said. A VDI deployment may be moved to the Astute appliance and storage capacity can be given back to the storage area network.
But not every organization will want to adopt a flash appliance. Damoulakis said.
"They don't want to introduce something else that needs to be managed and supported," he explained.
In those cases, software-based optimization becomes an option.
For example, Atlantis Computing's ILIO seeks to optimize how Windows operating systems interact with a VDI installation's storage component, according to the company.
Damoulakis said companies such as Atlantis have created software options that help customers use disk storage more efficiently.
Storage appliance services increase channel revenues
Channel partners may generate both product and service margin in the storage optimization space.
Tintri, which launched a formal channel program in July, aims to make its VMstore appliances competitive from a margin perspective, said Geoff Stedman, vice president of marketing at Tintri. They work with partners to get them up to speed on selling services around Tintri's products so that they have opportunities for additional margin, he added.
Tintri's product is often brought into virtualization deployments undergoing expansion, so the overall project may include other elements such as network equipment, servers and software licenses. Those sales contribute incremental margin, he said.
"[Tintri] is so easy to integrate," said Chris Wahl, data center engineer at AHEAD, a Chicago-based solutions provider. "That frees up a lot of time ... to engage with a client to solve more business problems, instead of putting in a piece of hardware."
Astute Networks offers a 40% channel discount with its two-tiered distribution system: Typically, 10% goes to the distributor and 30% to the reseller, said Steve Topper, CEO at Astute Networks.
The Astute appliance offers a service opportunity as well, said Topper, citing virtualization assessment -- determining where I/O performance and bottleneck situations crop up -- as one example. He also pointed to implementation and monitoring as other service add-ons.
Projects involving very large enterprises call for an assessment, followed by recommendations on technology and solution design, said Damoulakis. In smaller environments, the front-end assessment may be streamlined, particularly when the customer has a preference for the kind of technology to be deployed.
Storage optimization offers another plus beyond product and service sales: It can spearhead new business.
The storage appliances provide "a flanking tool to get into other accounts," said Charfauros. A prospective customer may be considering an enterprise storage array with a shelf of flash drives to address performance issues. The purpose-built appliance can gain traction among such customers.
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