The start of a new year is often a good time to evaluate your storage offerings. And 2010 may be the year to consider adding do-it-yourself storage to your product arsenal. Do-it-yourself storage leverages storage platform software along with standalone storage hardware, enabling you to deliver integrated storage systems to your customers at a very competitive price and with higher profit margins.
Until recently, a case could be made that customers needed the level of integration, performance and reliability afforded by complete storage systems offered by a single vendor, such as EMC or NetApp. But in the past few years, there have been big advancements in the available horsepower of even the most common Intel platforms, as well as in the quality and performance of off-the-shelf arrays. Coupled with the hardware advancements is the generation of standalone storage platform software that emerged in the late 1990s from the likes of DataCore, FalconStor and StoreAge (now owned by LSI).
Together, these advancements mean that there's less of an advantage to the big, integrated, single-vendor storage systems. Do-it-yourself storage options have become feasible. You or your customer can buy the software and hardware components separately -- similar to how a database application is selected and deployed.
Pros and cons of the DIY storage approach
If you're interested in building your own storage systems, there are some nice benefits. You'll be able to select and integrate hardware and software that can be offered to your customers at very competitive price points while seeing much better profit margins than with a traditional integrated system from a big vendor. If you can provide your own integrated solution that has all the capabilities that the customer needs at a price that is significantly less than the name-brand alternative, you'll have a distinct competitive advantage.
But your customers might see the move as risky. If your typical customer takes a very conservative, safe approach to their purchasing decisions, then your best bet may be to stay with the tried-and-true solutions. And, there may be a few differentiating capabilities that your customers need that are not currently available from standalone storage platform software and off-the-shelf hardware solutions. For instance, some vendors use specific ASICs to enable higher-level functionality for certain workloads. It's also important to realize that adding a DIY option to your line card could damage your existing relationships with major storage manufacturers. Finally, and maybe most important: You might not have a service organization that can stand behind the solution.
Selecting the storage platform software
Assuming you decide to pursue the idea of building a storage platform software/hardware combination, product selection comes down to what your customers need -- performance, value, ease of use, etc. -- as well as what you need -- a good vendor relationship, compatibility with your current lineup, etc.
There's a wide range of products to consider for a storage platform, with companies such as DataCore, StarWind Software and FalconStor providing SAN services software. Each of these vendors, to a varying degree, allows you to load its software onto a standard Intel platform server and assign lines to their server from a mixture of storage hardware. Then their software will take over the storage and data management responsibilities for that storage. For a NAS/unified storage system, look to companies such as Nexenta for its NexentaStor and Sun/Oracle for its ZFS operating system. Similar to the SAN storage platform software vendors, these vendors allow you to load their software on standard Intel servers and then attach storage to them either directly or via a SAN. They will then serve that storage up as NAS storage. It is very common to use one of the new "storage servers" that are available from a variety of suppliers that have room for a significant amount of internal storage for this task. You could even include some cloud storage products like those from Bycast or ParaScale to build private storage clouds for your customers.
Selecting the storage hardware
There are basically three types of hardware that you'd use for the storage platform software. The most prevalent today is a 1U or 2U server that connects to one or more external storage arrays, possibly including the customer's existing storage. The second type, used in a NAS/unified storage platform software environment, is a large server from the likes of HP, IBM or Dell that has plenty of internal storage capacity, sometimes 24 TB or more; these servers also have plenty of I/O processing capability. The final option is to run the storage platform software as a virtual appliance in a virtual server environment; most of the storage platform software products have a virtual option. In some cases there is enough excess processing power within the virtualization cluster (or a customer can create excess processing power by adding to their virtual server pool) to also support a storage application.
While you can approach or equal most of the capabilities of the major manufacturers' products by piecing together storage platform software and hardware, there's one thing that can fall through the cracks without a big vendor behind you: services. That's where your value-add comes in and why your selection of the software and hardware is so important.
Some storage platform software vendors overhype the fact that their software can run on any hardware, and while that is likely true, you can't afford to support many hardware platforms and configurations. Ideally, you should restrict your offerings to one or two software applications and one or two hardware solutions. Doing so will give you additional clout with those vendors and should improve your ability to support those solutions.
And if you can develop a credible support offering behind these integrated-by-you solutions, you bring tremendous value to your customer. Unlike a major manufacturer's system, which can be bought from multiple resellers, you wouldn't run the risk of being separated from the solution, since it would be yours.
About the author
George Crump is president and founder of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. With 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the United States, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, George was chief technology officer at one of the nation's largest storage integrators, where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection. Find Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement here.