StorageTek Customers Pessimistic, Skeptical

Few users think Sun’s stewardship will be a good thing for StorageTek or its customers

Most reactions to Sun Microsystems Inc.’s acquisition of Storage Technology Corp. (StorageTek) have focused on the potential risks and rewards for Sun. The prognosis for StorageTek and its customers, on the other hand, has typically gotten short shrift.

StorageTek is a respected company with a large and diverse customer base. And while competitors like Advanced Digital Information Corp. (ADIC), Spectra Logic Corp., and QualStar Corp. might now rival StorageTek in terms of library performance and scalability, many users say StorageTek’s service and support is in a class by itself.

Many StorageTek customers we contacted—including those in Sun shops—are apprehensive about the acquisition. In fact, many voice concerns that Sun’s stewardship has the potential to botch a very good thing.

Consider Matthew Huff, a storage manager with a prominent securities research firm. Before he purchased his StorageTek L180 library last year—from StorageTek OEM Sun, of all companies—Huff considered a range of libraries, mostly from StorageTek and ADIC. Even though several of his peers made excellent arguments in favor of ADIC, Huff chose StorageTek in part because of its stellar reputation for service. Since then, he says, he hasn’t had any regrets.

Post-acquisition, however, Huff is very concerned. “The fact that StorageTek has direct employees that service their equipment rather than outsourced to Advantis, Unisys or other service shops was a key factor in us choosing StorageTek over ADIC,” he explains. “If Sun migrates the support of the StorageTek equipment to Unisys, we will be very unhappy. Unfortunately, given Sun's history and the obvious cost savings, I'm willing to bet they will.”

Ironically enough, Huff describes his organization as a “fairly large Sun shop” with close to 160 servers—some of which are, admittedly, small rack mount units. Even so, Huff says, he doesn’t like the idea of getting storage from a one-stop-shop vendor. “We prefer to purchase storage from independent vendors such as StorageTek and EMC rather than an OEM like Sun or IBM.”

Huff isn’t the only StorageTek customer who’s concerned. Tim Mooney, a storage manager with North Dakota State University, says his organization has a significant investment in StorageTek tape gear. (NDSU was once a StorageTek disk shop, too, says Mooney, but was successfully wooed by “a very hungry” Silicon Graphics Inc.) “We have been extremely pleased with the support we've received from [StorageTek] in the past, especially our field-service engineers,” he says. “They've ‘gone the extra mile’ for us on several occasions. In fact, our FSEs are about 245 miles from us, yet we've still received better service from them than we have from some other support organizations that have local reps.”

Mooney has a pragmatic take on Sun’s move. For starters, he says, he doesn’t think the Unix giant can or will do much to scuttle StorageTek’s support organization in the near-term. “I doubt it will change much in the near-term. Long-term, [StorageTek] certainly has a better track record of providing timely, quality support to our organization than Sun does,” he says.

As for the prospect of some customers changing vendors, Mooney says there are only so many players one can choose from. “I think [it’s] a definite possibility” that some customers will think about switching vendors. There aren't many players in this segment, though, especially for very large enterprise tape systems. If you need a 6000-slot tape silo, there aren't many vendors to choose from. Even a die-hard HP shop may be forced to at least consider Sun/[StorageTek], if that's the need they have.”

For the present, Mooney says, NDSU plans to stay the course—which includes going forward with the planned purchase of another StorageTek library.

“We're right in the middle of the process of purchasing a new STK tape library, and Sun's announcement hasn't changed that,” he comments. “[StorageTek’s] support organization has engendered strong customer loyalty in us. Whether we still have that same loyalty the next time we purchase enterprise tape or disk will depend entirely on how Sun handles the [StorageTek] acquisition and current [StorageTek] customers.”

Like other StorageTek users, Stephen Fouchek, a storage manager with the land management agency of a prominent southwestern state, lauds the company’s service efforts. And, like many other StorageTek customers, Fouchek’s organization (which has a StorageTek L700 library) is also a very large Sun shop. In fact, his employer also has Sun storage—a StorEdge A1000—in addition to Sun hardware.

Even so, Fouchek is skeptical. He believes there’s a possibility Sun could keep the StorageTek faithful happy—and forestall customer defections—provided it executes properly. “I imagine that quite a few companies that deal typically with StorageTek might be a bit disgruntled,” he indicates. “However, if Sun keeps them as a separate side company, I don't think that there will be any issues.”

Unfortunately, Fouchek has his doubts that Sun will do as much. “I believe it is good for Sun, however, I do not think that it will be very good for [StorageTek],” he concludes. “My concern is for StorageTek... Until recently—[before] the open sourcing of their source code—Sun has been a very monopolistic company. We'll just have to get along and see how it all pans out. I am hoping that Sun can pull this one off and keep both companies afloat and prosper.”

Many StorageTek customers have reacted to Sun’s move with (forced) grin-and-bear it optimism. Others, however, can’t disguise a reaction of another kind—fear and loathing. “I think it will be profitable for Sun, especially when they layoff the StorageTek engineers in favor of outsourcing, but I don't think it improves Sun's position in the marketplace,” Huff concludes.

With the deal still pending and SEC regulations to which to hew, Sun, for its part, can’t say much about its post-acquisition plans.

Nevertheless, a Sun spokesperson did his best to allay the concerns of StorageTek users, stressing the value that the storage giant brings to the table. “StorageTek's significant market share, expansive customer base, global sales force and reputable and highly regarded storage services are all highly complementary to Sun's network infrastructure and storage products line of business,” he comments. “The result of this acquisition is a top-tier global leader in network computing and data management services that can bring a systems approach to [information lifecycle management]—and makes Sun the fourth largest storage company in the world.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.