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More Thoughts On Change…

This started as a response to comments on my previous blog but seemed to grow into something which felt like a blog entry in it’s own right. And it allowed me to rethink a few things and crystalise some ideas.

Enterprise Storage is done; that sounds like a rash statement, how can a technology ever be done? So I better explain what I mean. Pretty much all the functionality that you might expect to be put into a storage array has been done and it is now done by pretty much every vendor.

Data Protection – yep, all arrays have this.

Clones, Snaps – yep, all arrays have this and everyone has caught up with the market-leader.

Replication – yep, everyone does this but interestingly enough, I begin to see this abstracted away from array

Data Reduction – mostly, dedupe and compression are on almost every array; slightly differing implementations, some architectural limitations showing.

Tiering – mostly, yet again varying implementations but fairly comparable.

And of course, there is performance and capacity. This is good enough for most traditional Enterprise scenarios; if you find yourself requiring something more, you might be better at looking at non-traditional Enterprise storage. Scale-Out for capacity and All-Flash for performance. Now, the traditional Enterprise Vendors are having a good go at hacking in this functionality but there is a certain amount of round pegs, square holes and big hammers going on.

So the problem for the Enterprise Storage vendors is as their arrays head towards functionality completeness is how they compete. Do we end up in a race to the bottom? And what is the impact of this? Although their technology still has value, it’s differentiation is very hard to quantify. It’s become commodity.

And as we hit functionality completeness; it is more likely that open-source technologies will ‘catch-up’; then you end up competing with free. How does one compete with free?

You don’t ignore it for starters and you don’t pretend that free can’t compete on quality; that did not work out so well for some of the major server vendors as Linux ate into their install base. But you can look at how Red-Hat compete with free; they compete on service and support.

You no longer compete on functionality; Centos pretty much has the same functionality as Red Hat. You have to compete differently.

But firstly you have to look at what you are selling; the Enterprise Storage vendors are selling software running on what is basically commodity hardware. Commodity, should not be taken as some kind of second-rate thing; it really means that we’ve hit a point where it is pretty standard, there is little differentiation.

Yet this does not necessarily mean cheap, Diamonds are a commodity. However, customers can see this and they can compare your price of the commodity hardware that your software runs on against the spot-price of that hardware on the open market.

In fact if you were open and honest, you might well split out the licensing costs of your software and the cost of the commodity hardware?

This is the very model that Nexenta use. Nexenta publish a HSL of components that they have tested Nexenta-stor on; there are individual components and also complete servers. This enables customers to white-box if they want or leverage existing server support contracts. If you go off piste; they won’t necessarily turn you away but there will be a discussion. The discussion may result in something new going onto the support list; it may end up finding out something definitively does not work.

We also have VSAs popping up in one form or another; these piggy-back on the VMware HCL generally.

So is it really a stretch to suggest that the Enterprise Storage vendors might take it a stage further; a fairly loose hardware support list that allows you to run the storage personality of your choice on the hardware of your choice?

I suspect that there are a number of vendors who are already considering this; they might well be waiting for someone to break formation first. There’s quite a few of them who already have; they don’t talk about it but there are some hyper-scale customers who are already running storage personalities on their own hardware. If you’ve built a hyper-scale data-centre based around a standard build of rack, server etc; you might not want a non-standard bit of kit messing up your design.

If we get some kind of standardisation in the control-plane APIs; the real money to be made will be in the storage management and automation software. The technologies which will allow me to use a completely commoditised Enterprise Storage Stack are going to be the ones that are interesting.

Well, at least until we break away from an array-based storage paradigm; another change which will eventually come.




  1. Hi Martin, Dimitris from NetApp here.

    I think I understand what you’re trying to say, I just don’t think you found a good way of saying it yet.

    I also think the similarities between enterprise storage systems aren’t as strong as you may think.

    It’s a bit like saying:

    All cars are about the same. All computers are about the same. All weapons. All boats. Etc.

    Some differentiators are:

    1. The level of QA (and by QA I mean this in the broadest sense possible)
    2. The quality of componentry
    3. The engineering that marries hardware and software
    4. Instrumentation
    5. Automation
    6. Management
    7. How bizarre corner cases are handled
    8. Whether a feature actually works or just mostly works in Slideware.

    The last 2 are the important ones. For example:

    Sure – all vendors have snapshots now in their Slideware, “just like NetApp”. How well do they actually work under duress?

    Or regarding data protection. Really – everyone is about the same? Everyone has comprehensive lost write protection done 2 ways in addition to RAID and checksums? Everyone can deal with misplaced writes? Torn pages?

    The devil is in the details. Marketing droids revel in the lack of details in order to craft their illusions.

    And, per the comment I left in your previous post, I think you don’t mean commodity the way most people understand the word commodity.

    Major storage companies like EMC and NetApp can’t just have a “loose” HCL.

    Customers use our gear in life-or-death situations (wars, hospitals). They use it to make money in real-time environments (trading firms, massive online music and app stores). If it works intermittently because the loosely accepted commodity box happens to have some new HBA firmware that was chosen because that’s what the commodity box factory builds with the just-in-time methodologies they use, who do you call while someone’s shooting at you? Or when trying to pull up critical patient info?

    I will leave you with a small exercise.

    What defines an “Enterprise” workload?

    After all, you did start by talking about enterprise storage, and that’s what enterprise storage is used for… 🙂



  2. Dimitri, I think you need to do some further reading about commoditisation and what it means. Commoditisation is not a bad thing, it is not about random quality; in fact it really means standardisation, removal of differentiation.

    As IT matures; this is going to become more and more common; the differentiation between platforms becomes less important, what you do with/on the platform is the important thing, where innovation happens.

    Enterprise Storage is becoming a commodity in the same way x86 servers running Linux have become a commodity. Realistically, I can buy an x86 server from any vendor and it will perform pretty much in the same way. Large corporations do tend to stick with a particular supplier for their servers but anyone who has sat on an RFP/ITT for a server project will tell you that the technical specifications and capability is very much secondary. The devil may be in the details but it is rarely the technical details.

    Many Enterprise workloads are running in public cloud environments; the biggest of these are running on commodity hardware, both servers and storage.

    And what happens at hyper-scale will trickle down into smaller data-centres; well those people who still have data-centres.

  3. Chris P says:

    Enterprise Workload – An amount of “work” or effort to be executed in the forum of a company for commercial purposes.

    Enterprise Storage – A piece of hardware or kit typically purchased from a company that charges very high margins for providing hardware and support services.

    Oddly one doesn’t necessitate the other though the media, “enterprise storage” companies, and people who like to pad their resume (more out there than you think) would like to have us all believe that big companies need to spend their capex on “enterprise” kit, else they are some kind of freak or betting the business on low end ideas.

    The old saying that “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” has never been more true except it doesn’t just apply to IBM.

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