The SANscape

The SANscape


You could be excused for shaking your head every time someone starts jumping up and down screaming "this is going to be the biggest thing to hit the market since . . ." but the groundswell building around SANs has even the most sceptical of resellers raising an eyebrow.

Despite all the major storage vendors positioning themselves around the onset of SANs, it's important to put the hype in perspective; to date, very few have been deployed in Australia and it looks like we could be nine-12 months away from any serious market swing. Meanwhile standardisation issues and lack of expertise continues to hamstring reseller's attempts to begin migrating their customers into the new world of network storage.

Market size - how long is a piece of string?

The potential market for SANs is enormous. Data is growing exponentially, the interaction of business applications is becoming more complex, and the Internet is driving storage through the roof, out the back door and spilling out over next door's lawn.

Analyst International Data Corp (IDC) director of Storage Research, Graham Penn, believes the Australian SAN market will be worth $US62 million in revenues this year, nearly double the recorded $35 million recorded for 1999. In 2001, conservative estimates suggest $85 million in SAN revenues. A thing to note, however, is these figures represent the disk market only. Additional tape and other storage technology within the SAN market paints potentially a much bigger picture.

While the forecast is for big growth, very few companies are currently deploying SANs. According to a recent IDC survey, only 7 per cent of organisations have deployed SANs, with another 18 per cent evaluating or planning deployments. Penn further qualifies these statistics, stating that many of these companies are only deploying departmental installations and not across an entire network.

But this is likely to change as SANs gain mindshare, and Penn believes the adoption rate is going to grow rapidly in the next 12 to 18 months as enterprise-wide SANs emerge.

Educating the channel

On the reseller front, Penn believes the top-end of town, such as the large consulting and integration firms, have the resources to throw at skilling up their staff in SAN deployments and are now implementing SANs. In a step down from this market a number of storage pure-play resellers are emerging, whereas most resellers will struggle to move into this market.

"Smaller resellers are having to train people to be able to implement SANs. That's something resellers haven't been good at because once they train someone, they're off for an extra $25,000 somewhere else," said Penn. "Very few resellers can offer a full-blown storage implementation. So what you'll see is resellers partnering with the new storage integrators, and that's a good way for them to go. Specialist storage integrators are a new business we haven't seen before," added Penn.

One such company is EnStor, whose marketing/sales director and co-founder, Ken Wood claims:

"Don't skimp on training up front - fly people to the US if you have to. Don't skimp on test hardware - I'd suggest anyone who's serious be prepared to spend a couple of hundred thousand on hardware to test concepts."

At the low-end, Wood feels its relatively easy for players to enter the SAN market. However the more companies move into the large enterprise space the more customisation and development is required. The result is increasingly complex systems.

Apart from pure-play storage integrators, Wood is of the opinion there remains relatively little knowledge in the greater channel of SAN deployment.

Paul Roberts, national business development specialist of Computer Associates, claims SAN deployment is "a learning curve on both sides" with vendors developing new technologies and the end-user gaining understanding of how these technologies can improve their business. In the middle then, must be the channel, which has to bridge vendor excitement with real-world customer expectations - and the answer is channel education.

"You'll find most of the vendors are holding education seminars [for the channel] and roadshows around SAN technology," said Roberts. "Most resellers know the building blocks that go into a SAN like the servers, switches/routers and disk drives but knowing how to put these all together and design a SAN is not there yet for a lot of resellers."

Another integrator that's been making headway in the emerging SAN market is Powerlan. The company recently acquired storage integration and distribution unit XSI, to form its own specialist storage division. Heading up that division in Queensland is Bob Logan, who claims resellers looking to get into the market have a tough row to hoe.

"It's a long road for a systems integrator to be able to offer a SAN," he said. "It sounds easy, but you've got to be really aware of interoperability," said Logan. "Small resellers are becoming unstuck as it doesn't all bolt together as easily as people make out."

It appears the acquisition of XSI has been fruitful for Powerlan, with recent success implementing a SAN into Brisbane-based St Peters Lutheran College. Powerlan's project manager Scott Gosling, claims one of the biggest considerations facing SAN deployment is the "customer mindset, and getting their heads around understanding that centralised [SAN] storage is the way to go".

Gosling agrees with Logan that resellers looking to get into this market face a tougher challenge than it first appears.

"A lot of people are bolting into the market," said Gosling. "When they can't support the customer . . . the customer is left holding the can."

Market opportunities

Resellers have been trying to shrug off the old-style box moving image and move headlong into services and consulting for some time now and, with the implementation of SANs IDC's Penn describes, there is a lot of up-front consulting on offer - even before an implementation gets underway.

"First [resellers] have to do a needs analysis of their customer's storage requirements and this involves a significant consulting effort up front. Then they have to project manage the implementation; a lot of normal resellers can't offer this project management [aspect] of a SAN deployment," said Penn.

Another emerging revenue stream in the storage market for channel players is the arrival of storage service providers (SSPs). Outsourcing data storage offers very attractive cost benefits for customers, but, as Penn says, convincing customers of that is another story. The mindset that many corporations have against trusting a third party with their critical data will have to be overcome before this model gains any real acceptance.

"There are three issues for a company here - privacy, security and confidentiality," said Penn. "But this will be overcome in time as companies can outsource their data management in stages starting with their non-critical data. Once a certain level of trust is built, and the company is confident the [SSP] is going to stay in business for a while then yes, I think this model will be an option many companies will adopt."

As the currents in the channel warm towards SANs, the driving force behind end-user interest appears to be coming from the vendors. While the usual suspects on the hardware side are vying for a piece of the storage market dominated by EMC, a recent report, Storage Futures, by the research arm of financial company Merrill Lynch, claims the software that enables SANs is the key differentiating factor.

"In the storage arena, the power is in the software. Pure hardware, like disk drives or controllers, is critical to the success of a storage system, but they are commodities . . . storage software that operates across multiple vendors' hardware can make the devices somewhat interchangeable, turning the hardware into a commodity," stated the report.

From a software perspective, CA's Roberts claims resellers should look towards the same features that make for a good network management product, such as bandwidth management (like serverless backup) and application/volume management.

Despite the market fervor surrounding SANs, open platform standards are still impeding the market from reaching its true potential. With the majority of vendors following various paths, hedging bets on Fibre Channel versus IP (Ethernet), the ball is moving in the same direction, albeit sporadically.

While SAN standards are on their way, Mark Jobbins, technical services director for integrator Tripoint, feels one of the central factors in SAN deployment is choosing the right vendor platform (and products) from which to start with.

"The key thing is to pick the right vendor platform that won't box you into a corner six to 12 months down the track," said Jobbins.

Evan Penn, managing director of Digital Storage, agrees. "Vendor independence can be a good thing because it might help you win a lot of tenders, but winning tenders is only half the battle. Making sure the customer is happy and that everything works as it should is the key. Eventually, if you're across too many vendors then you're going to get caught out by not knowing your product. That's when things start falling down," he said.

"Our clients are coming up to us and saying ‘we need a SAN, we understand it but we don't have the experience in-house to put one in'," said Evan Penn. "They know what they want they just don't know how to do it."

Augmenting SAN implementation with services is a good earner for resellers as the current trend is to stage SAN deployments. The approach to customers migrating from direct network connect storage to a SAN environment is to take it in stages, he claims. With budget requirements preventing an all-in-one rollout, companies are keen to lay the foundations for a SAN such as the fibre cabling, before scaling up to the expensive Fibre Channel switching and network components.

"Scalability is the big issue. One of our customers has said to us ‘we're going to hit a terabyte in 12 months but we don't want to pay for it now'," he said.

It's not all beer and skittles for resellers looking to move into the lucrative SAN market. As Evan Penn claims: "You need deep pockets and to be able to train your people well to make it in this market. If you can't do that, then don't bother."

While it may be a little early to tell whether resellers will flock en masse into the SAN space in much the same way as they did during the LAN revolution of 10 to 15 years ago, Penn feels many channel players are lured by the glitz and glamour of the e-commerce and application integration business and are leaving storage pretty much alone.

"Maybe they think their stock price is going to soar if they are into the Web business stuff. I mean, no one says ‘wow what an amazing storage system you have', they say ‘what a cool Web site'," espoused Evan Penn.

History lesson

Storage has grown somewhat since floppy disks were actually floppy, but in more recent years the standard storage solution was housed by various Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices, tape libraries and of course sitting on big thumping servers somewhere in the IT department. And then some bright spark decided to establish a dedicated network that could perform large data transfers without choking their system's bandwidth to death, and the SAN was born. Well, it's a nice story but the concept of SANs has been around for about eight or nine years in the mainframe environment. It's just that SANs have now entered the open platforms of Unix and NT, which sees SANs getting so much airplay at the moment.

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