When Storage Management Vendors Collide

A quick rebuttal to a competitor's press release piques interest in vendor claims.

This week I was going to begin a series on "building block" storage, emphasizing the value of purpose-building one's infrastructure rather than settling for inefficient one-size-fits-most storage solutions. Another topic, however, was dropped in my lap. The story began last week, when storage -- or as they now say, "data" -- management software vendor CommVault sent me a lengthy press release announcing the latest version of their flagship product, Simpana.

Interestingly, the press release was not only several pages longer than most, it was also structured to make it easy for overworked journalists (or editors with no freelance budgets and no staff writers) to quickly cobble together the salient "facts" into an article. At the end, there was even an optional "value-add" quote from an industry analyst proclaiming the software the coolest thing since sliced bread.

Planning to set the press release aside for casual mention in some other story, I received an e-mail from Symantec stating that they wanted to set the record straight regarding some of the claims made by CommVault.

The fact that a request to rebut was so quick in coming piqued my interest. In general, the storage management software market rarely generates the kind of heated debates routinely encountered in the array hardware market where, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, the battles are bloody because the stakes are so small.

I found myself writing a very different column than the one I intended. It is less about the product suites offered by the two vendors and more about the broader issue of how difficult it has become to make sense of the value of any storage management story told by vendors.

CommVault's Simpana product, now in release 8, is a five-module suite that covers a broad range of storage management, content management, and data protection tasks. The latest release has over "300 enhancements and 140 newly added product features," according to the release, backed by "over 50 U.S. patent applications."

I asked Dave West, vice president of marketing and business strategy, and Zahid Ilkal, senior product manager, to discuss some of the high points. They told me that the features considered as most significant by their customers were (1) "a universal approach to de-duplication," (2) "an alternative to hardware array-based snapshots," (3) "an effective workstation backup strategy," (4) a better way to "manage storage behind virtual environments" focused mainly on improved techniques for backing up and restoring data used by virtual machines, and (5) "a better way to use data at rest and to return data assets to use faster" from a de-duplicated or backed up state.

I'm not sure why Symantec took such an interest in the announcement, especially one coming from a competitor with a smaller installed base, I asked Marty Ward, senior director of product marketing for Symantec's data protection group, for a sanity check. He said, first, that he did not take exception to most of the content of the CommVault announcement, but he worried about not responding to "inaccuracies" given the outcomes he had seen when "large companies ignored their competitors, however small."

He stated that CommVault was not first with global software de-duplication, and offered that Symantec "had this feature in our NetBackup product three years ago." He also criticized CommVault's approach of offering de-dupe only as "an embedded software approach."

"Our customers like to choose how to deploy and use de-dupe," said Ward, "The enterprise market likes doing de-duplication using an appliance or directly on the storage array. That's why Symantec has many partners in the de-dupe appliance space. Also, some customers like to do de-duplication on the client, while others prefer to do it on a media server as a post-[write] process that they can schedule."

As to CommVault's assertion of a "global de-duplication solution," Ward offered that his customers do not want to de-duplicate data on primary storage, nor do they write de-duplicated data to tape. "You run into problems with tape reliability, for one thing. If you write a de-duplicated data set to tape, you run the risk of tape reliability. If one tape in a set is lost, you could lose all the data. Then there's the issue of where the catalog resides, and of course, how long it takes to rehydrate the data so you can use it again [in a recovery situation.]"

Ward's commentary sounded sensible, but it had no bearing on the CommVault story, according to West and Ilkal. Ilkal clarified some language from the release by offering that his "global embedded software data de-duplication solution" did not apply to primary storage. "People do not use de-duplication with primary storage, only with data copies."

However, he insisted that his customers were interested in driving de-duplicated bits to tape media. In fact, he said, CommVault's "data model has been extended to accommodate just this approach."

The product manager noted, "We have a distributed indexing catalog that is stored both on our server and on every piece of tape media. This gives the appearance of a single copy of data from a management standpoint and was a capability in 1.0 of our product. We have leveraged it for backup in the 8.0 release."

He did not address the issue of whether consumers desired an on-array or on-appliance approach to de-duplication, though he did note that CommVault supports the scheduling of de-duplication processes via policy tools.

Symantec's Ward also jumped on CommVault's snapshot technology, which leverages VSS to enable continuous data protection while applications are running. "They say they are enabling their product to work with third-party snapshots. We had this 12 years ago. I'm glad they finally made it to the 1990s."

Ward said the key to making snapshots useful was to provide "granular recovery technology that indexes all the way through the snapshots, so you can quickly get to the data you need to recover. From what we can see, what they are claiming to have done has already been done."

CommVault's Ilkal responded that his backup agents had been expanded in this release to accommodate a two-tier approach in which the original snapshot can be snapped up to a proxy server where it can be processed and indexed, then a secondary process copies data itself to secondary storage. Support for VSS-based snapshots increased in importance, he said, against the backdrop of server virtualization. "We can crack open the images created by the hypervisor and index them," a capability that enables changes to often very large VM image files to be protected without requiring that the entire file be replicated with each change.

Ward then said that Symantec's close relationship with VMware has enabled the company to develop unique capabilities to track data associated with virtual machines even as they are physically moved from server to server using facilities such as Vmotion. That comment produced a telephonic shrug from Ilkal. "We are also constantly in touch with Vcenter, so we know what VM we are backing up."

Finally, Ward expressed his concern about supported hardware and product licensing. "Does CommVault's software," he wondered, "only work in a SAN, or does it support iSCSI and NAS too?" With respect to the competitor's assertion -- that it was making its product "available in simplified and consolidated pricing bundles aligned to popular use-cases to make configuration and purchasing simpler than ever" -- Ward suggested that this approach was possibly too complicated. "We used to sell NetBackup using server-centric licensing, but now we offer a capacity model. The customer can just say, 'Price me out a solution for managing 100 TB of data.' They give us their order and they get the full solution, including Cluster Server, High Availability, and Replication. In fact, CommVault doesn't have high availability, which we have built into our Backup Exec and NetBackup products."

Dave West retorted that CommVault ships with all components: "Everything is there. You activate the modules with license keys and there is one license key per server environment. Alternatively, if you aren't sure which modules you need, you can use our license download agreement that provides you with the equivalent of a debit card that you can use to go to our website and activate whatever module licenses you need."

He added that the bundling idea simply includes software components that his customers most often use in connection with specific applications, reducing the complexity of ordering and the price of the solution. His resellers find the bundles easier to use.

As for support for hardware, West and Ilkal conceded that CommVault currently supports only NetApp and EMC Clariion storage systems. "Most applications require Fibre Channel storage," Ilkal asserted, who added that projects are underway with Hitachi Data Systems and Dell (their EqualLogic iSCSI storage platform) to certify their integration with CommVault Simpana.

The bottom line is that most of Symantec's concerns about leaving CommVault's press announcement unchallenged appear to be less about inaccuracies in the latter's story than about Symantec's own misunderstanding of the CommVault product, its capabilities, and limitations. While Ward was correct in his assertion that quiet market-share leaders sometimes find themselves kicked out of the box by vociferous newbies, an even bigger success killer, as I see it, is the lack of a deep understanding of the competitor's product and how its features compete with your own.

Caught in the middle of such uninformed "he said, she said" debates is the consumer, who must find it difficult to decide between storage management solutions given the high quantity of marketspeak and misinformation that too often finds its way into the dialog. Were I a consumer considering the two product families of these companies, I might choose to focus on several factors to aid my decision.

First: does the product support my critical infrastructure components -- my applications, my server environment, my network, my storage hardware and interconnect? This needs to be a forward-looking judgment call, since infrastructure isn't standing still and I may want to deploy different software or hardware downstream.

Second: is the vendor's solution standards-based to insulate me from proprietary stovepiping later on? When I asked CommVault about their potential adherence to W3C Web Services, which are increasingly leveraged by applications to request services such as data protection from infrastructure, they said no. They said that their data-transfer mechanisms are not open and that third-party applications can't write to their "data management" solution unless specific agents have been developed to facilitate communication and pathing. That means that it is more difficult to turn on and off functions such as de-duplication based on what business rules have been created by corporate information governance personnel, say, unless data sets are pre-segregated into named file folders or onto storage gear associated with specific servers.

CommVault insists that its content director model provides sufficient flexibility and granularity to do data management with their kit. That's providing you use only their kit. Data management approaches of this type depend on "exclusion" statements ("exclude this data from that function or resource") as a means to provision services to data. That is a counterintuitive approach in my experience and prone to error. I'm not sure how, if at all, Symantec's Storage Foundation product addresses this issue, but it seems to me that focusing attention on such operational matters might provide a more probative line of criticism than making quips about who had what capability first.

Third: I would look at cost, including deployment costs, and return on investment. A lot of storage management initiatives go nowhere because, in addition to the cost of the software, there are additional expenses for things such as product training and deployment project resource requirements that are price accelerators. I also want some metrics that show me how much doing the deployment will return to me in business terms: cost savings, risk reduction, and top-line growth.

Of course, you will need to check with fellow consumers to see what their experience has been with the company involved. You likewise need to avoid a predilection for older established vendors. The current economy has shown that even stalwart brands can go by the boards. CommVault spokespersons put this clearly, "If Symantec is the best, why is their revenue from these products flat lined, while we are experiencing 30-plus percent year over year growth?"

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