The Devil Is In the Details

Is it true that the storage world is upside down in the southern hemisphere, too?

Dateline: Johannesburg, South Africa. I have just finished my co-chair, speaking, and moderating duties at a storage conference here at the Southern Tip of Africa and write this column from a hole-in-the-wall hotel where the airline has put me to wait out an 18-hour flight delay. The entire trip has been a metaphor for the dilemma of contemporary data storage.

It began last week when a United TED flight was cancelled, causing me to miss a connection, and delaying my departure from Africa by a day. The inconvenience wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been for the fact that recalculating the ticket price ended up costing another $1,100. United would not take responsibility for the cost increase because the two itineraries were not connected.

At the South Africa storage show, I heard an almost identical tale, but with respect to an EMC storage solution that failed to deliver the promised software functionality required to manage both its arrays and the third-party arrays already on the customer’s floor. It seems that Control Center (ECC), the management software that shipped with the new array (its brochure promised centralized management over heterogeneous infrastructure), was unable to support the specific array model the customer had already deployed in his shop. EMC, according to the customer, was not willing to take responsibility for the discrepancy: like United TED, the “itineraries” of installed and new gear were separate. The customer’s only option was to purchase another storage-management software product, at additional expense, to get his infrastructure to where it needed to be.

When I arrived in Johannesburg after a grueling 20-hour flight on South African airways, my bags were missing—they hadn’t been loaded on the plane at JFK. Troubleshooting that situation took time; as a result, the driver who was waiting for me outside customs assumed I had missed my flight and saw no point in waiting around. I ended up taking SA’s equivalent of the Tijuana Taxi to the Intercontinental Hotel in Santon, where I discovered that my booking had been voided by my day-late arrival.

A room was finally found but with no baggage and no clothes to wear on stage at the conference the following day, I made a mad dash to the shopping centers to find a suit, shirt, tie, etc.

I’m not exactly an off-the-rack-sized guy, so having a suit tailored on the spot was the only option. It took some looking around to find a tailor who catered to large men like me, but the price was reasonable given the 6.5 Rand to the dollar exchange rate. The suit will surely become one of my favorites.

Again, the experiences found their metaphorical equivalent in conversations with delegates at the storage conference. Consumer after consumer told tales of products purchased which failed to ship with the necessary cables or software to work immediately with their intended applications. Interminable delays waiting for the missing components had a ripple effect: Application roll-outs were delayed, business opportunities were missed, costs multiplied.

I will confess that one fellow’s tale found no sympathy from me. His $22 M Rand solution had been purchased from a name-brand vendor as an expedient. He told me that he just didn’t have the time or interest to shop around for a better-fitting solution “just to save 2 to 4 percent on the price.” What he bought was an “ill-fitting suit,” simply because he was too lazy or otherwise preoccupied to shop around and get what he really needed. Instead of tailoring a storage solution to his needs, the IT man, who referred to himself as a “business guy,” ordered the gear in the brochure, figuring that the vendor—“also a business guy”—would make the deal whole.

The last time I was here, the flights ran smoothly, drivers met me at the arrivals gate outside customs with radiant faces and big smiles, and hoteliers did their best to give me the full course of South African hospitality. At previous conferences, I was impressed by the unquenchable desire of the delegates to learn everything they could about storage technology, reflecting, I suspected, the years of isolation from the distributed computing mainstream during the era of Apartheid. They were just beginning to consider FC SANs and NAS products, and sought to learn from the successes—and especially the failures—of those who had already walked down this path.

This time around, the U.S. storage vendors were at the conference in force, delivering death-by-PowerPoint marketing presentations filled with hype and half-truths about Information Lifecycle Management, Regulatory Compliance, utility storage, and SNIA. That wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been for the tone of the panel of end users that I moderated. All of the participants belonged to companies with deep pockets and big IT budgets as SA companies go. Most of them came across like a bunch of upwardly mobile urban metrosexuals in Manhattan, San Francisco, or the DC Metro area in the USA.

Their deployment of FC SANs was driven more by fashion than function: they seemed to want to boast that they were among the first kids on their block to have their new equipment, as though status was more important than storage savvy. Plus, there was a general disdain for products from any company that did not have three letters for a name. They had clearly drunk the Kool-Aid from the large U.S. storage manufacturers and were articulating the cliché mantra that smaller vendors with new ideas were not to be trusted with the heavy lifting of corporate computing.

In short, they had become a lot like us. That was sad to see.

On the other hand, I continued to be encouraged by the questions raised by folks in the audience—particularly from small to medium-sized companies such as the national banks of smaller African nations. These people tended to be suspicious of U.S. vendors, maybe of all vendors. They were very concerned about getting the most value for their money, and totally oblivious to the merits of a storage caste system.

They were less interested in what vendors had to say about the angels in their architecture. They were eager to learn about the devils in the details. Sound guidance for us all.

The next column will come from Lisbon, Portugal as I continue my round-the-world adventures in storage. E-mail me on the road at jtoigo@toigopartners.com.

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