Invasion of the Tin-Wrapped Software Appliances

Increasingly, functionality to support storage networking and management is being provided by start-up companies who choose to embed their technology in an appliance format. We offer a few questions

Regular readers of this column know I have long considered the storage technology market to be somewhat reminiscent of the 1950s Cold War. Competing “solutions” are often framed as diametrically opposed alternatives (tape versus disk, for example) and there is no shortage of propaganda churned out by vendors, their intermediaries in the analyst community, or by ad-revenue-strapped trade press publications to fuel debate.

In the realm of backup and restore, momentum continues to build behind the Enhanced Backup Solutions Initiative (EBSI) as a mechanism to foster détente between vendors in order to expose the broad range of technologies that exist between the extremes of disk-to-tape and disk-to-disk. About the same time that this note appears in your email, EBSI will have held its first executive board meeting following the appointment of Michael Peterson as Executive Director just before the holidays in December.

Peterson is a person of some reputation: the founder of Strategic Research Corporation based in Carpinteria, CA, and a co-founder of the Storage Network Industry Association (SNIA). His bio also describes him as an industry veteran “with 18 years of direct industry experience as an engineer, quality assurance expert and business manager and 14 years as a market, product and business development strategist.” Reading between the lines, it seems that EBSI tapped Peterson because he knows the vendor community and how to schmooze them. This is important because, without vendor buy-in, EBSI will not have the resources to realize its vision.

This columnist was also in the running for the Executive Director spot, but my campaign thesis was a bit different than Peterson’s. I argued that in order to cajole vendors into coming to the EBSI bargaining table with cooperative solutions in hand and to make the organization truly effective at developing and delivering reference solutions to consumers, we needed a grass roots campaign. We needed the end users of technology to band together and demand better stuff from their vendors. In the final analysis, I argued, that would force the vendors to work and play well together, avoiding a repeat of the SNIA experience.

The decision-makers at EBSI were cordial and invited me to participate on the Board of Directors as the “End User Ombudsman.” I cheerfully accepted, but with a veiled threat: I would dutifully report to end users, through this column and my other writing and speaking engagements, any shenanigans I observed. If EBSI proved to be just another vendor branding scheme, producing little or nothing of value to the consumer, I would make sure that end users knew this and disregarded the brand. It is a credit to the EBSI founders that they took my challenge and gave me a chair at the table, and I look forward to participating.

In the meantime, many vendors—start-ups mainly—have contacted me to ask whether EBSI is right for them. I am convinced that many of the cutting edge technologies for storage management, security and data protection are emanating from the start-up world and not from the big name brands. Start-ups have no vested interests in an installed base of customers and can work from a blank slate to approach a problem from a fresh perspective. NeoScale, with its storage security appliances, Revivio, with its data protection “time machine,” Avamar Technologies, with its commonality-factoring algorithm for culling out duplicate data from backups, are all examples. I encourage all of the newbies to take an interest in EBSI as a means to gain notice for their products and to prove their worth.

Which brings me to the meaning of the headline of this week’s column: Invasion of the Tin-Wrapped Software Appliances. Some of you may recall that a by-product of the Cold War was a flood of “B” science fiction movies about invasions from outer space or the effects of radiation on everything from Gila Monsters to Tarantulas. For many film directors and actors, these were vehicles for making a quick buck; for others they were hopeful stepping-stones to careers in A-list films.

That ‘50s mindset is alive and well in the start-up world. Virtually everyone with a fresh idea for solving an old, intractable IT problem is writing software these days. To achieve the notice of the brand name vendors, with whom they seek the life’s blood of lucrative OEM contracts, they are wedding their software to off-the-shelf hardware—tin enclosures with hard disks and power supply—and creating “appliances.”

Most of these appliances do one thing: exercise the secret sauce software inside. If these vendors can get you to plop down some hard-earned money and deploy enough of these single-purpose appliances into your shops, the expectation is that the big name vendors will take notice and license or buy the technology outright from the start-up.

The problem is that tin-wrapped software appliances are multiplying in the marketplace faster than George Lucas can turn out Star Wars sequels and prequels. Moreover, many consumers are concerned about deploying technology right now from non-mainstream players. On a technical level, one has to wonder how many single-purpose appliances one can deploy in a network before bandwidth (mental and network) becomes saturated.

On the other hand, if an appliance can make a difference in operating costs by allowing expensive name brand platforms to be re-purposed (Revivio, for example, will let you use the six extra mirror disk sets inside your Symmetrix for productive work rather than serving as continuous, 24-hour, backups to your primary disk), it makes sense to try it out.

Bottom line: the word I am giving to the tin-wrapped software appliance guys is to bring their boxes to the EBSI party. By including them in reference standard testing, they will work shoulder to shoulder with their name brand peers, and if the products work as advertised, they will gain the attention of the consumer through this column. That’s part of my role in EBSI. (Visit the EBSI website at for more info.)

About the Author

Jon William Toigo is chairman of The Data Management Institute, the CEO of data management consulting and research firm Toigo Partners International, as well as a contributing editor to Enterprise Systems and its Storage Strategies columnist. Mr. Toigo is the author of 14 books, including Disaster Recovery Planning, 3rd Edition, and The Holy Grail of Network Storage Management, both from Prentice Hall.