Things used to be simpler. There were monolithic storage vendors using proprietary hardware and there were software defined storage (SDS) vendors selling software that you could run on your favorite Intel machine. But the SDS wave sent a clear signal to the proprietary hardware vendors and they started getting on the SDS bandwagon. And now, it seems, that it’s becoming increasingly hard to find a software-only SDS vendor.
I want to be clear in stating that I don’t think it’s wrong that an SDS vendor sells a hardware version of their product. I’m just taking note of the trend and commenting on it, and wondering what it is about IT that drives us to be interested in such products.
Build vs Buy
I think this is related to the build versus buy discussion that takes place even outside the SDS world. Do we buy a completely built appliance from a big box vendor, or do we build it using the components that we feel are the best of breed? (In my mind, a “big box vendor” is any company that will sell you a completely configured appliance and support the entire configuration, not just Dell or HP.) When we buy a fully configured appliance, we are given the assurance that all of the components included in the appliance have been tested together and are supported by the vendor. If there is some sort of problem with any component of the hardware, we can simply call one place and let them figure it out.
If, however, we build the system ourselves using various components, there is no one to call but ourselves. If there is an incompatibility issue between components, troubleshooting that incompatibility will be your problem. I remember working for a large oil and gas company that built their Sun Sparc servers this way. This wasn’t as much about best-of-breed as it was about buying an inexpensive box that you could run Solaris on. Then when things went wrong, I remember the client saying, “call Sun.” We would just laugh, knowing that Sun was the last place that we could call. This may be why I generally am not a fan of building your own box for corporate IT.
Buy Big Box Appliance or SDS Appliance
Assuming you accept my recommendation to buy a pre-configured appliance vs a build-it-yourself one, where should you buy that appliance if you are building an SDS system? Should you buy it from your favorite big box vendor and purchase the SDS software separately, or should you buy a completely configured appliance from an SDS vendor that already has the SDS software installed on it? Each SDS product is expecting a certain kind of hardware to run its platform on, and not every box from a big box vendor is going to be able to supply the configuration the SDS software is expecting. But a pre-configured appliance from the SDS vendor will have exactly the configuration the software is expecting.
I think what it comes down to is customers are seeing less value from buying hardware and software in different places, which means they are asking SDS vendors to provide them a complete solution. It’s a simpler purchase. Many SDS vendors are using the same hardware that the customer would buy anyway, and it simplifies support. As long as they don’t markup the hardware in a significant way, there’s little incentive for the customer to purchase their hardware separately.
In short, SDS vendors are becoming hardware vendors because customers are asking them to do so. Customers are seeing less value in purchasing the hardware separately and see more value in making sure that the hardware works well with the software thereby.