Can We Trust Hardware Guys to Do Storage Software?

Hardware or software storage management – that is the question.

As reported in my previous column, I sent a questionnaire to a number of self-styled “platform-neutral” storage management software vendors at the end of 2004 to get their read on issues and opportunities for the coming year. Last time, I summarized their views of the VERITAS-Symantec merger. This week, I look at their perspective on the threat from former big iron hardware-turned-software vendors.

The question is an important one, partly because of the compelling sales pitch that hardware array (and SAN) vendors are making to their customers: every one of them argues the merits of a one-stop-shop for hardware and software that gives the customer one-throat-to-choke if anything goes wrong. This is powerful stuff and places third-party independent software vendors (ISVs) on the defensive.

Computer Associates takes a realistic view of the situation, noting that the entry of large storage vendors into storage management space was bound to happen. As revenues from storage hardware continue to drop (on average about 35 percent per year, according to the company), “these vendors needed to find another vehicle to generate revenue if they expect to grow.”

“Of all the hardware vendors,” the CA response continues, “EMC has probably best understood this reality. Initially, the focus was on managing their own storage hardware to create a barrier for software-only companies such as CA. They are attempting to evolve into more of a heterogeneous solution, but sales are typically in their own hardware-installed accounts or at least are the predominant supplier. Storage software is meant more to drag along more hardware sales.”

AppIQ offers that the survival of ISVs in the face of the challenge from hardware-turned-software-management vendors has, more than anything else, to do with distribution. It is all about “account control,” says AppIQ. “Even though these vendors don’t necessarily have the best technology, they have strong account control and attach rates with their other products. That’s why we pursued the OEM strategy – with HDS, Sun, Engenio, and SGI as our partners. We are able to neutralize the account control issue, and beat them with our stronger technology.”

Undoing account control can, however, be a daunting task. The ISVs must find a way to surmount the consumer’s reluctance to buy separately what they can get “for free” from their hardware vendor. They must explain that, in many cases, management-software licenses on big-iron arrays don’t kick in for a year, giving the impression to the consumer that the array vendor is providing value-add software at no additional charge. After the year is up, however, and software costs assume a hockey-stick-like growth curve on the IT budget, everybody gets sticker shock and some storage manager's head usually loses his or her job.

Both CA and Softek suggest that most customers still look at the hardware vendors with some skepticism when it comes to a truly independent heterogeneous storage management solution. CA relies on this skepticism to effectively compete against the “one -top-shop” pitch.

Says CA, “If customers are looking for a homogeneous, single-vendor solution, they then need to be concerned about vendor lock-in. However, most large enterprises are heterogeneous in nature. If customers want choice and integration with all IT disciplines then only CA provides the complete solution, as EMC and IBM are still trying to integrate into the other disciplines of the IT stack. They have not proven they have the ability to integrate all their solutions together.”

Softek adds, “Big iron vendors need to offer software solutions to, at minimum, manage their own hardware. With the bulk of their revenues coming from hardware and the need to sell customers more, not less, it would be a stretch to view hardware vendors as truly agnostic and having the customer’s best interest in mind.”

Assuming that the ISV can get the customer worried about lock-ins and software costs, they must then convince him that (1) proper storage management is a must-have, and (2) their flavor of storage management is superior to the big-iron vendor’s solution.

The problem with the first point is that many customers still regard anything beyond basic command-line interfaces (CLI) and Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) MIB-based management to their storage devices to be overkill.

CLI- and SNMP-based mechanisms provide a somewhat passive view of the storage infrastructure: a minimum requirement for management. When the ISV starts to talk about driving out labor costs through automated, real-time, policy-based responses to storage infrastructure events, many customers’ eyes just glaze over.

According to a source at Tek-Tools, the solution to this problem is to sell modular wares that address specific requirements: “End users implement only the pieces of the product they need and want based on their specific goals and environment rather than purchase an overly complicated software suite that becomes shelfware.”

If the customer agrees that storage management has importance, demonstrating the superiority of the ISV’s product over the big-iron guy’s wares is the next big challenge. The one point echoed by nearly every respondent to my survey was that they could manage a heterogeneous hardware set better than a big-iron vendor with his homogeneous-infrastructure imperative.

Said AppIQ, “IBM’s and EMC’s software is not truly agnostic—they will never deliver the same level of management for competing hardware vendor devices as their own because of their hardware agenda. But their ‘one-stop-shop’ pitch is attractive, and in the past would overcome a technical advantage when we were selling directly against them.”

Tek Tools couches its view of the competitiveness of its software against big-iron players in optimistic terms: “Though large hardware vendors have developed their software offerings through acquisitions and mergers, continued development tends to focus on interoperability with proprietary hardware. Few end users have an infrastructure filled with a single vendor’s products, and as such they need reporting tools that specialize in being cross-vendor and cross-platform.”

Softek chimes in: “Historically, ISVs have always brought more innovation to management disciplines. This has been true in system and networks and there is no reason this shouldn’t be the case for storage.”

One thing is certain. At the end of the day, the winner of the storage consumer’s heart and purchase order is the vendor who delivers in its software technology what it promises in its brochure. Given the problems that consumers have reported to this column regarding faulty storage management software from both big-iron and big-ISV players, it would seem that the biggest challenge confronting vendors in 2005 will be convincing the consumer to believe them.

Your comments and observations are welcomed. Write to

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.