How To Break Free From Tier 1 SAN Vendors

Google and a bevy of large enterprises and cloud providers have broken the stranglehold of big enterprise storage vendors using virtualization. You can, too.
Time to face the hard truth about enterprise storage: Apart from the intelligent software embedded in the controller, that Tier 1 SAN you spent millions of dollars on is just a conglomeration of commodity components. A 15,000-rpm enterprise-class hard drive mounted on a fancy set of rails and topped with a shiny corporate logo is still just a 15,000-rpm physical disk, even if you did pay a jaw-dropping markup. Controllers are mostly based on standard appliance or x86 platforms running Windows or modified Linux variants, with custom Java-based Web interfaces for management slapped on top.

We're not saying this is a bad thing--in fact, it makes a lot of sense to use standard building blocks rather than redesign the operating system and hardware set from the ground up. And there's real value in the software stack that provides intelligence and management. But it's time to ask this question: Is there a less expensive, more flexible alternative?

"SAN storage isn't sorcery anymore," says Jake McTigue, IT manager at medical device maker Carwild and an InformationWeek contributor. "If you have disks and management software, you can make pretty much anything happen. The question you have to ask yourself is: What exactly am I paying for here?"

What indeed. Unfortunately, enterprise storage is one of the last bastions of closed design, and Tier 1 vendors are working hard to maintain the status quo. They have stellar name recognition, and they're building on a base of solid products that gave rise to the SAN revolution. EMC in particular has a very effective marketing machine, adept at impressing executives with its black boxes. Of course, it also has a track record for reliability and enterprise-class support. What no one mentions in sales presentations, however, is that shiny new features like tiering and thin provisioning have been available for years from software vendors, and that under the hood of pricey SAN gear like the Clariion line runs Windows XP Embedded or Windows Storage Server on a standard Intel platform.

An EMC spokesman didn't dispute the hardware angle but says what his company brings to the table is well-tested integration of high-end components, advanced software capabilities, and--perhaps most important to enterprise IT--a single point of contact if problems arise. "IT organizations understand that evaluating technology based on cost alone often leads to point decisions that can be cheap up front but very costly over the technology's useful life," he says, adding that out of EMC's several thousand engineers, a very small number are dedicated to hardware while the overwhelming majority are focused on software development.

Storage vendors like EMC, Hitachi Data Systems, and Hewlett-Packard also issue qualified-equipment lists that IT organizations can use to ensure their setups are supported. "Sure, you can do whatever you want with storage," says Network Computing editor Mike Fratto. "But go off the reservation, and you won't get support until you're back in line."

InformationWeek: Nov. 1, 2010 Issue
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