How to Pull Money out of Storage

By Michael Vizard Print this article Print

New hardware and software are wringing inefficiencies from storage technologies.

If one trend stands out more in 2006 than any other, it would have to be the way information-technology organizations have been driving the cost out of their hardware to free up more money to invest in applications.

Most of the work thus far has been concentrated around server consolidation efforts; this will soon be augmented by broader adoption of virtualization software, which should significantly improve server utilization rates.

But one hardware area where we have only begun to drive out the cost is storage. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is a wide discrepancy between the kinds of margins that a subsystem manufacturer such as EMC commands versus what a company like Seagate makes by selling the actual disk-drive component.

This is only one of the indicators that suggest there is a lot of room for driving out subsystem cost, regardless of what companies such as EMC, Hewlett-Packard and IBM claim concerning the value of their investments in firmware for their subsystems.

But even more troubling is the fact that while storage space demand is growing 50% to 60% per year thanks to compliance regulations, XML and a rising tide of multimedia files, utilization rates for storage subsystems are still pretty abysmal. For example, utilization rates for server-attached storage are usually about 20% to 30% per array, while rates for network-attached storage (NAS) are roughly 30% to 40% per array. In effect, this means we're spending money more inefficiently than ever on storage.

Clearly, these types of utilization rates are a compelling argument for storage virtualization products, which allow multiple arrays to look like a single shared storage resource for multiple servers. But beyond virtualization, companies such as Network Appliance have been making a lot of headway by arguing that customers also need updated storage management software that significantly reduces the number of copies of the files they need to store; the software minimizes overhead as well by copying only the delta changes made to a file rather than making a new copy of the file.

Besides coming up with more efficient storage management products, NetApp has also recruited third-party partners like Kazeon to meld search technology with storage to make it a lot easier to execute a search across a broad number of storage arrays.

Those capabilities, among others, induced Boston University to switch from EMC to NetApp for its NAS products, says BU chief technology officer Carlos Moreira. BU remains an EMC customer for its storage area network products, but the university felt there was too much to gain in terms of cost savings by having one NAS environment support its Windows and Linux servers. In fact, NetApp executives say they think customers will see storage utilization rates in the range of 65% to 75% per array.

NetApp itself may not be the storage industry darling it once was, with startups such as Isilon, Ibrix and Onstor seeking to usurp NetApp among customers that require high-performance network-attached storage. But for the bulk of the enterprise market, NetApp has a lot to offer compared to entrenched competitors, as borne out by the company's consistent 30% growth in quarterly revenue year-over-year.

Unfortunately, most storage salespeople are too invested in trying to sell more storage than they are in helping customers use what they have more efficiently. Even IBM, which has a reseller agreement with NetApp, is far more interested in selling storage hardware than NetApp software.

But if understanding, deploying and managing new storage software is not on the top of your agenda, you might want to spend some time with Rackable Systems, a provider of server and storage hardware for data centers. After selling servers against Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM for the last few years, Rackable has added storage arrays to its product lineup; these cost about $4 per gigabyte, which the company says is about half of what EMC and IBM charge.

You may ultimately decide to just use either NetApp or Rackable Systems as a stalking horse to drive down IBM's or EMC's pricing, but don't count on sales reps from either company strolling through your front door to tell you how much they can save you on storage costs. From their perspective, it's a lot easier to ride the overall increased demand for storage space.

Fortunately, there are a lot of alternatives starting to emerge for driving down storage costs. As we move into next year, it's pretty clear that this will be a top I.T. priority.

Michael Vizard is Editorial Director at Ziff Davis Media's Enterprise Technology Group. He can be reached at michael_vizard@ziffdavis.com .

This article was originally published on 2006-10-19
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