Will Traditional Disk Array Vendors Survive?

The more you look at how SAN disk array systems are evolving, the more you start to wonder how traditional disk array systems vendors can survive long term without a significant change in their business model. What’s been a business primarily focused on building solid high-availability RAID arrays is now facing a serious commoditization challenge as standard Intel compatible server hardware is adapted to storage device applications. Furthermore, the latest or pending acquisitions of 3PAR, Isilon and now Compellent, puts significant pressure on the last few independent disk array vendors to start beefing up their virtualization or unified storage play.

There are a few industry trends that should raise concerns for traditional players:

  • There are fewer margin dollars available for incremental R&D for pure RAID disk arrays, not helped by the continuing drop in disk drive prices
  • Standard Intel compatible off the shelf CPUs, memory, chipsets and RAID components developed for higher volume servers and workstations are now being utilized in storage platforms running standard operating systems, or open storage software Linux or ZFS based  (e.g. OpenFiler)
  • We continue to see new hybrid storage-server hardware product offerings from white box equipment builders, including dual controller SBB solutions, that facilitate easier disk array and storage virtualization integration
  • SSD device performance increases are leading to newer approaches to storage systems that may not lend themselves to traditional disk array controllers and slow speed SANs
  • We are seeing many storage management features and thin provisioning making their way into server hypervisors, in many cases as “free” standard components
  • Large scale data intensive environments, such as those used by search engines, are favoring non-RAID, non-SAN architectures (e.g. Hadoop) utilizing low cost networked PC technology and Linux (JBOS – just a bunch of servers)

Does this spell the end for traditional RAID array guys? If you read many of the press around RAID today, then the outlook does not look good. However, in the short term there is still business to be had. The good news is that the storage equipment market, along with infrastructure upgrades in traditional corporate markets, takes many years to transition to new technologies. You just cannot switch out storage when something new comes along. It’s like trying to upgrade the train carriages while the train is moving; not practical, dangerous and will pretty much upset customers if you try to do it. You have to migrate non-disruptively to any new storage system to avoid significant service or application disruption. But this will not last forever.

They literally have to starting thinking outside the box. What is clear is that these traditional disk array vendors really need to start taking note of the highly successful Dell EqualLogic effect i.e. storage that is scalable at network system level, simple and cost effective from an operating cost standpoint as opposed to the device centric model they currently use.  The market has certainly rewarded this virtualized, scalable networked approach in spades given Dell’s reported revenue successes with this product family over the past few years, even though  it is more costly on a dollar per Gigabyte basis.

Some pure play disk array vendors or divisions such as LSI, Dot Hill and Xyratex (who OEM their products to larger companies such as Dell, HP and IBM) are already migrating upward by acquiring or building storage virtualization appliance companies, but it will take time for them to adjust to the new world as it takes a significant shift in the types of engineers to develop network level, virtualized storage. Then there is the issue of doubling investment for a while as you sustain one and develop another approach. Selling styles also change as the system level knowledge needs to target a different type of buyer in many cases. In their favor, they have the robustness, service and know-how advantage i.e. they know how to make, sell and support storage extremely well.

It wouldn’t be the first time an industry had to reinvent itself in order to survive and it will be interesting to see how it pans out over the next several years, and most importantly, who survives until the next round of commoditization.