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Big vendors duke it out over storage for SMBs

Once a scarce commodity for SMBs, storage systems from IT's biggest name-brand companies are popping up all over. Look, listen, kick the interfaces, but don't let the flattery go to your head. Niche players may still be your best bet.

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), the behemoths are at your gates, storage products in hand. Once a scarce commodity for SMBs, sophisticated storage systems from the industry's brand-name companies are popping up all over. It doesn't matter whether you're a small SMB or a big SMB (what's $1 billion in revenue and 950 employees among family?), Hewlett-Packard, IBM, NetApp and now Dell have good buys for you.

To me the key that distinguishes these products is … how simple can they make these products for companies that don't have storage experts to manage them.
Andrew Reichman
analystForrester Research Inc.
On Monday, Dell Inc. unveiled the MD3000i storage array for SMBs at events in London and San Francisco. Last month, IBM took the wraps off its System Storage DS3300 product for SMBs. Network Appliance Inc. has weighed in with its FAS2020 and FAS2050, storage arrays aimed at midsized companies with $50 million to $500 million in annual revenue and up to 1,000 employees. That makes Hewlett Packard Co.'s StorageWorks All-in-One (AiO) Storage Systems, released last year, practically old news.

What do they have in common? The SMB systems come with storage area network (SAN) arrays that use iSCSI interfaces, so SMBs can connect these systems to their existing local area networks. The new products are touted as cheap alternatives to Fibre Channel, the gigabit-speed network technology primarily used for storage networking. In fact, easy to use, economical and even -- as in "even SMBs with no IT staff" -- litter the marketing materials.

IBM's System Storage DS3300 for SMBs, for example, promises "robust and reliable storage" at prices starting at $5,000. DS3300 joins Big Blue's D3000 series and is designed to meet the requirements of a wide range of SMBs, according to the company. DS3300 comes with iSCSI interfaces, next-generation Serial-Attached SCSI back-end technology, and management software. Even the smallest SMB with no IT staff should have should have no difficulty transitioning from direct-attached storage configurations to an Internet protocol SAN, promises IBM. The product comes with installation wizards that guide you through setup and configuration.

Don't let pretty words turn your head

"To me, the key that distinguishes these products is how simple can they make the software that drives it -- how simple can they make these products for companies that don't have storage experts to manage them," said Andrew Reichman, who covers storage at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

In the year it's been out, HP's AiO, a direct competitor to the new offerings, has sold well and built an excellent reputation for "having very simple-to-use software," Reichman said. He was reluctant to analyze the merits of the just-announced products from Dell or IBM, except to say Dell's product "showed a lot of potential" and IBM "probably has a big hill to climb," at least on the marketing front, in the SMB market. "IBM is not really known for ease of use," he said.

SMB buyers should also keep in mind that the new offerings -- with a range of 20, 30 and 40 terabytes of storage -- don't have a huge amount of scalability. Plus, even companies that have those kinds of storage size requirements may have more demanding performance requirements, Reichman said.

"These products are not for a company that has separated workloads, where they are going to run a whole storage system just for Exchange, for example, and another whole storage system for their database and one for their file storage," Reichman said.

For a bank that has users doing online transactions day-in-day-out, for example, "latency is going to be a killer" with some of these new systems, even if terabytes are not, he said: "What it comes down to are the I/Os per second." For those companies, Fibre Channel connectivity, rather than ISCSI, would make more sense, he said.

Also, flattering as the attention from the big vendors might be, SMBs should not ignore the niche players that have been on the scene longer, Reichman advised. Vendors like EqualLogic Inc. have had ISCSi-based storage products "with excellent management capabilities" for many years, he pointed out. Compellent Technologies Inc. and LeftHand Networks Inc. have modular storage products for SMBs looking for scalability, performance and software that's easy to use. The risk is that the smaller niche players are not as financially sound as an IBM, he said.

"But they have got really good features. Their technologies are excellent," Reichman said. "Companies should give those little a guys a good look, because they have really got a lot of proven experience in it and built their systems from the ground up to take advantage of the capabilities that they offer, so they are highly virtualized and they are highly easy to manage."

Simple is as simple does

David G. Hill, founder of Mesabi Group LLC, an industry analyst firm in Westwood, Mass., that focuses on networked storage and storage management, said there's no mystery why vendors like IBM and HP are wooing the SMB market: "That's where the money is," Hill wrote in a note published in Pund-IT Weekly Review regarding the IBM DS3300 launch.

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IBM has research showing that the potential storage market for SMBs will reach $11.5 billion in 2008 and is expected to continue to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.6% until 2010 -- or one-and-half times faster than among large companies. The midsized company storage market is expected to outpace that. Little and medium deals add up to big money.

Hill wrote that IBM "has a lot going for it" in its SMB strategy: "A well-trusted brand name (which also includes the ability to service products worldwide and service is a key decision criterion for knowledgeable businesses of every size) is one point, along with a broad range of products, financial stability, and continuing R&D investments." Still, he agrees with Reichman that IBM faces challenges from not only other large suppliers, but also "quality smaller players that may not be household names but inspire confidence and respect among their respective channel partners. "

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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