Before the War, the Storage Sector Peacefully Soldiers On

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With many analysts putting the figure for the data storage market in the billions over the next few years, it’s no wonder top tech firms are both pumping out upgraded products, and scrambling to ink new deals with key partners. But a recent Goldman Sachs report questioned how long it would be before the companies, which have many similar and/or overlapping technologies, continue to play nice.

IBM Corp. Tuesday chalked up the former when it rolled out a couple of network-attached storage (NAS) towers as part of the next phase of its storage networking initiative, which debuted last February. Brocade inked the latter with Sun Microsystems Inc., a long-time EMC Corp. partner.

Big Blue launched the IBM TotalStorage NAS 200, a tower (one processor and up to 216 GB) targeted for the service provider community and e-mail storage or video file serving, and the more sophisticated, dual engine, TotalStorage NAS 300, which powers applications, such as accounts receivable, payroll or customer support, in large departments and small enterprise settings.

The NAS 200 also comes in a rack version designed for departmental and regional office locations for applications such as sales force support. As for the higher-end product, Big Blue also now offers a 300G version, which it says bridges the gap between the local area network (LAN) and a storage area network (SAN) with new clustering technology.

With these products, IBM is addressing the needs of customers who want to reduce their dependency on servers for access and management of storage while using the LAN to consolidate and store file data. And despite scads of competitors in the storage networking arena, IBM seems to be targeting Network Appliance in comparison, claiming that its new towers have bested NetApp’s own products in benchmark tests. While the companies will no doubt disagree on the accuracy of each other’s tests, one analyst who scrutinized IBM’s NAS 200 and 300 towers attested to the potential of a single selling point for Big Blue: David G. Hill, research director, Storage & Storage Management, Aberdeen Group said “workgroup level customers will enjoy a sweet spot in price and performance.”

While Big Blue shows its competitive colors with its new NAS releases, the company has also collaborated with rivals in the field to help the industry move forward; last Monday, IBM teamed with Brocade Communications Systems Inc., Compaq Computer Corp., EMC, Hitachi Data Systems Corp. and McData Corp. to work on interoperable storage networking solutions under the aegis of the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA). The mass collaboration caused one analyst, Sean Derrington of Meta Group, to praise the firms for their willingness to work together.

“The fact that competing storage vendors have been able to agree on configurations and software levels to jointly qualify and have entered into cooperative support agreements is remarkable,” Derrington said in a public release.

Allied and Axis Powers

The cooperative spirit was there for all to see last week, and it trickled over this week when Brocade, a leading switch provider for storage area networks (SANs), and Sun, forged a deal that would allow the hardware giant to resell, service and support Brocade’s flagship SilkWorm fabric switches on a global basis. Brocade and Sun will also forge supported storage networking configurations as well as work together on the software development initiatives that were announced earlier this year.

Again, the announcement drew nothing but praise from an industry analyst, this time from Steve Duplessie, founder and senior analyst, the Enterprise Storage Group.

“Sun partnering with Brocade represents two market leaders working more closely to deliver storage networking solutions to Solaris and other operating environments,” said Duplessie. “Sun is the UNIX king and Brocade is the fibre channel switch king. Their customers will be happy.”

But Goldman Sachs’ Laura Conigliaro took a more holistic view after attending Brocade’s analyst meeting Monday night. She noted that Wall Street is a bit unsure as to how the switch specialist’s July quarter would fare in the bear market, but that Brocade is enjoying “enough critical mass that it can gather together an impressive number of customers.” Translation: no worries yet.

Conigliaro research yielded the fact that customers are very much interested in deploying SANs, which Brocade specializes in powering. She heard from customers who claimed they would set up starter SANs with two to three switches, but pledged to expand to 10 switches by year’s end. While this is certainly good news for Brocade, Conigliaro indicated the sun doesn’t shine as bright on the sector in terms of interoperability, as last week’s six-company, SNIA partnership indicated.

“… despite much talk about interoperability, end users remain skeptical , and are likely to remain with a homogeneous SAN for the foreseeable future,” Congiliaro said.

So, the synopsis is that things look good for Brocade, an important player in the field, but hardly the only one. No, there is more than currently meets the eye and for the switch maker, king hardware company Cisco Systems Inc. looms large on the horizon. Conigliaro indicated in a research note last week that while many storage networking product makers are getting along nicely now, that there will be a period of shakeout, price undercutting, and a time for rivals to “lock horns.”

“The merging of storage and networking technologies in storage networking imply that companies will be in a state of ‘coopetition’ for the near term but will be more competitive going forward. From the storage networking side, Brocade is emerging as the leader in providing a robust and feature rich platform. At the same time, Cisco is emerging as the leader in providing complementary tools to extend and broaden the reach of SANs, and continues to work with Brocade in developing a blade that would enable two distant fibre channel SANs to be connected via IP,” Conigliaro wrote. “Since both companies have broader ambitions beyond their current capabilities — with Brocade looking to add traditional networking features such as security and QoS to its platform as well as add multiprotocol capabilities such as IP to its switches, and Cisco looking to extend the reach of its products beyond just interconnecting SANs, including working on the development of large multi-protocol switches in its highly secretive Andiamo group — the two are increasingly likely to be competing with each other in the future.”

Rest assured, Cisco and Brocade are hardly the only contenders analysts see as duking it out in the storage ring later. There is IBM and Network Appliance, Hitachi and EMC — the list goes on and on. Figuring out who will square up with who will no doubt prove as maddening as it will be interesting to watch in the next year.

Clint Boulton
Clint Boulton
Clint Boulton is an Enterprise Storage Forum contributor and a senior writer for covering IT leadership, the CIO role, and digital transformation.

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