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Special reports - Who's who - November 1999
Jane Dudman browses her storage directory and highlights the technologies and those who made them available
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Like everything else in life, buying storage used to be simpler. More expensive, but simpler. Now, storage is cheaper, but finding a way through the jungle of technologies and suppliers can seem like a nightmare. In the mainframe days, when a customer bought a new IT system, they bought the subsystem either from their main supplier or from one of the relatively few third party storage specialists.

The rise of mid-range, departmental machines brought a rise in the amount of storage needed and the number of third party storage suppliers grew, as did the technology options. But data back-up usually took place at night, firmly under the control of the central IT department.

Then came the PC and the networking explosion. Storage became cheaper and storage devices smaller and more easy to attach to departmental networks and even to individual machines. The result was predictable: data back-up and storage became somewhat haphazard, relying on individual departments and users to remember to back up their own data. The main consequence was something of a boom for specialists in the field of retrieving ‘lost’ data.

The choice is yours

Meanwhile, storage technology development has also flourished, so that today there is a bewildering proliferation of different approaches: tape, optical, magneto-optical, CD, DVD and all the rest. But now comes the backlash. IT managers want to get a grip on their organisation’s rapidly growing storage requirements. Storage is a huge market and one that is growing fast. Just like IT itself, the storage world gets gripped by crazes. At the moment, the talk is all of Storage Area Networks (SANs), which will, it is promised, help overcome the problems of having storage devices dispersed all round different parts of the organisation by being able to link them together, back under the central control of the IT department.

But at the same time, everyone acknowledges that users need rapid access to stored data and will not be happy to wait about while some remote IT storage system fishes out their archived information. Striking a balance between the need for rigorous, controlled back-up procedures and providing access to stored data is a problem facing almost all IT managers. Which suppliers they turn to for help will depend largely on the type of installation they already run. There are many more players and systems in the storage market now, but there is still a fairly clear demarcation between different levels of the market, depending on how much money a customer has to spend on storage.

The enterprise storage players

At the top end of the market are the enterprise storage players. These often come from a mainframe background, such as IBM and Hitachi Data Systems (HDS), or are specialist storage companies focusing on the top end of the market, such as EMC. Tony Reid, storage solutions manager at HDS, says changes in the operating systems marketplace over the past few years have been matched by changes in the storage market. "NT is always now at the top or very high up the list of platforms we support," he comments. According to Reid, enterprise-level customers, familiar with HDS from its background in the mainframe business, are now looking for similar capabilities in the new areas of open and NT-based storage systems. "There is big growth in these areas, as central IT departments take control," he says.

The main problem facing IT managers in expanding this area of storage is the unpredictability of demand, says Reid. Unlike the relatively stable world of mainframe capacity planning, it is much harder to predict the growth of open and NT-based systems. "It is taking a while for IT managers to get a handle on the size and growth of these systems, but I think they are starting to do that now," comments Reid. HDS’s main competitor at this top end of the market, where customers are likely to be spending many thousands, if not millions, on storage systems, is EMC, which has grown rapidly over the past few years, mainly on the back of keen price/performance in the IBM market. It now has a turnover of more than $3 bn and is seen in the US in particular as a company with an aggressive salesforce, eager to push up its figures even further.

IBM itself is, of course, a major player in the enterprise market, not surprisingly, given its huge installed base of mainframe and midrange customers. It suffered in the mid-90s, when it was unable to react quickly enough to specialist rivals like EMC, but its storage business is still big and the company has targeted NT as a major area. Last year, it extended its Seascape storage systems into the NT market, including tape subsystems and its Adstar Distributed Storage Manager.

The midrange market

In the midrange market, there are also major established manufacturers, most notably Hewlett-Packard, selling both systems and storage to a large customer base. Similarly, Digital had a thriving storage business, which is now part of its new owner, Compaq. Both HP and Digital had to adjust their storage businesses to the advent of open systems and considerable competition from specialist storage players, able to move quickly into the third party storage market.

Some observers believe the combination of Compaq’s presence in the server market with Digital’s storage capabilities could provide extra competition at the top end of the market. That’s a challenge HDS’s Reid plays down, even though HDS has recently formed an alliance with HP, the aim of which is presumably to strengthen each company’s presence in their respective parts of the storage markets. "There is a danger of competition from the midrange market, but the things customers are asking us to do with new, NT-based applications often mean data has to come from a mainframe and that gives us an immediate advantage, because we can do that through the storage infrastructure," comments Reid. Traditional midrange storage specialists, such as Exabyte, are having to look to their laurels in the storage area as manufacturers like IBM, Compaq and Sun focus increasingly on networked storage, playing on their existing networking services strengths.

The component level

At a component level, though, business is booming. Storage device manufacturers and software companies are experiencing increasing demand for their products. The only difficulty here is ensuring they are in the right part of the market, because as new technologies emerge, older ones inevitably fall by the wayside. Sony, for instance, stopped making 12" optical disks last year and Kodak has now stopped making 14" optical disks. That’s because optical disks have largely been superseded by the gigabyte storage capacities on magnetic and DVD storage systems.

Storage Area Networks

Also much in demand is SAN software. SANs may be the up and coming technology for storage, but they rely on complex connectivity software and Fibre Channel products to take advantage of faster network capacity. Fibre Channel is the key high speed network technology that will enable SANs to become feasible, with potential speeds of more than 100 Megabytes per second. As yet, Fibre Channel is an expensive, top end answer to the problem of wide area storage networks, although this is beginning to change. Companies like ATL Products, now owned by Quantum, are developing Fibre Channel systems to support SAN connectivity. Quantum ATL recently announced a system that would enable existing users of its Prism range of storage to upgrade to a SAN-enabled storage library. As SANs begin to be a reality, rather than just more industry hype, demand will grow for the glue that sticks them together, as well as for the subsystems hanging off the end. Dave Burgess, product marketing manager at server company Sequent, says all companies in the storage market are now working hard on their SAN product ranges. "The long term goal is being able to attach any storage system to any server," he comments. "That is very difficult to achieve, but it will be achieved, because now customers have a sniff of the fact that it is possible."

Getting to this point could take another two years, according to Burgess, and will not be easy. "It is one thing for a company to say it can connect any server to any storage system," he warns. "That is probably true and many vendors can do it. But when you then push the system, you get problems."

These technical problems and the need to provide a single support point for customers, so that when things do go wrong there isn’t the usual scenario of different companies arguing over where the fault lies, means SANs are not yet a reality in most organisations. But soon it will be huge, says Burgess. "The market for SANs is on the verge of exploding," he comments.

Partnerships

Sequent has already released what it calls the first heterogeneous SAN system, enabling storage systems to be hooked into both Unix and NT servers. The storage components for Sequent’s systems come from its partnership with storage specialist Brocade and Burgess says the results of this alliance vindicate both Sequent’s choice of partner and its decision to remain independent of the storage market itself.

There are likely to be a growing number of such alliances as the storage market expands. IT managers may find the underlying storage technologies looking pretty similar, but the key aspect in storage, as in all other purchasing decisions, will be the combination of price and service – and there will be big variation in both over the next few years.