Enterprise Storage: BlueArc or Blue Flame?

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – popularly known as shock treatment – has been used for more than 60 years to treat severe depression in patients who have not responded to medication or psychotherapy. Critics of ECT claim that theprocedure has no valid effect, simply causing short-term brain damage that makes the patient forget what he or she was depressed about. Eventually, the brain reroutes its traffic and the original problem returns.

So it is with data storage. Every few years, one vendor or another introduces a technology intended to free the IT manager from the depression created by an endless cycle of "hard disk full" messages and ad hoc storage deployments. Their marketing messages are the equivalent of ECT. "Shocking" claims are made about the storage device or array – usually touting some innovative feature and insisting that it is the last storage device the customer will ever need to buy. Unfortunately, most products do not live up to claims.

Initially, the customer experiences the invigorating anticipation of the arrival of his latest cool technology investment. When the shipping carton arrives in the data center, IT staffers flock around like kids on Christmas morning waiting to tear into the wrappings. Finally, the new device is unveiled – pristine, pure and begging to be loaded with corporate data.

Over time, however, the novelty wears thin, manageability or interoperability issues begin to arise, and depression returns. For the consumer, it is back to the market for another ECT treatment.

Recent conversations with storage newcomer, BlueArc Corp., reinforced by the vendor’s "go to market" strategy, suggest that their first storage product offering may fit the ECT scenario to a tee. BlueArc has introduced a new "silicon server" technology – essentially a network-attached storage (NAS) box with a Gigabit Ethernet interface and a Fibre Channel Arbitrated Loop or Fabric drive interconnect – that the company describes as a "disruptive technology" solution for storage. BlueArc has departed from typical Von Neuman computer design and implemented NAS operating system functions in Programmable Logic Devices. These features, combined with a proprietary journaling file system and fault-tolerant design redundancies, delivers, according to the vendor, two GB/s throughput from the box – exceeding the throughput of most storage arrays.

Unfortunately, the company has wedded its technology innovations to an ill-conceived PR attack on storage industry hegemons EMC, Compaq and Network Appliance. In garnering media attention through "shock PR," BlueArc has gotten its 10 minutes of fame. However, it has also exposed its value proposition to the kind of scrutiny that most start-ups generally do not want. Here are a few key questions that were on the minds of those who heard the BlueArc sales pitch at Storage Networking World 2001 and Gilder Storewidth 2001 – both held in April at separate venues in Southern California.

First, is BlueArc really a "disruptive technology" in the Clayton Christensen sense of the term? The answer is "no." Whatever technology innovations that BlueArc has provided in its equipment are certain to be reverse-engineered and improved upon by existing storage vendors for use in their next-generation products. In a sense, BlueArc may be viewed as an extension of the traditional storage player’s R&D – and a free one at that.

Second question: Is the solution offered by BlueArc ahead of its time? Yes. It is also ahead of its market. For the value proposition of the technology to be realized, the dream of "optical networks everywhere" must be realized first. Only such networks can challenge the bandwidth and throughput of existing storage platforms, and they currently exist only in select NFL cities or core carrier networks. BlueArc is, in a very real sense, offering a solution to a problem that doesn’t yet exist. Moreover, it is addressing the problem with proprietary technology that may be widely available from tried-and-true vendors by the time the need for it actually arises.

Third, is now the time to buy a proprietary platform from an untested vendor? With a burgeoning economic slowdown and budgetary belt-tightening in many IT shops, the answer is "no." Traditional products based on established industry standards are likely to win competitive bids for now.

Bottom line: BlueArc would do well to consult recent history and remember the dotcoms. Most of those companies got the "dot" part – the technology part – right, but they neglected the "com" part – the business part. BlueArc may have great technology, but it cannot hope to become a force in this industry on the basis of technology alone. Like the traditional players whose products BlueArc criticizes, the vendor needs to define a specific business problem and demonstrate how it can solve it better than its competitors. The problem is, as a self-described "disruptive technology," BlueArc sees itself as without competitors. That’s a sure path from BlueArc to Blue Flame.

Jon William Toigo is an independent consultant and author of The Holy Grail of Data Storage Management. He can be reached at jtoigo@intnet.net.