User survey shows strong surge toward SANs

By Dave Simpson

According to an extensive survey of 152 Fortune 1000 IT storage professionals, the surge toward storage area networks (SANs) is much stronger than the shift to network-attached storage (see figure). TheInfoPro (TIP) research group, in New York City, conducted the survey, which included extensive interviews averaging 50 minutes per respondent.

Although growth in the NAS market is healthy (see article, below), users in the TIP survey consistently cited technical drawbacks as the primary gating factors to increased adoption. "Users feel that NAS has a number of technical limitations," explains Ken Male, founder and CEO at TheInfoPro. "They're having trouble identifying appropriate applications for NAS, and many users find it difficult to justify NAS based on a relatively limited set of applications." Most often, says Male, the application deficiencies relate to transaction-intensive database applications.

In addition to citing the difficulty of matching applications to NAS, respondents in the TIP survey indicated the following NAS limitations:

  • Reliability improvements;
  • Standards support;
  • Improved scalability, services, and/or performance;
  • Vertical application integration; and
  • Virtualization across multiple vendors.

A statistically insignificant number of IT storage professionals cited the tough economic climate and reduced IT budgets as reasons in favor of increasing NAS expenditures. "In fact," says Male, "when budgets got tight, NAS expenditures often got cut because the company's central strategy was based on SANs." Less than 10% of the 152 respondents said that they planned to significantly increase their investment in NAS.

It should be noted that the TIP survey was limited to IT organizations that had already implemented storage networks (either NAS or SAN) and that 85% of the companies were in the Fortune 1000 (33% were Fortune 100 companies). As such, the survey results may have little bearing on the storage network purchasing plans of companies smaller than the Fortune 1000 or on companies that have yet to implement storage networks.

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All of the survey interviewees were dedicated to storage-specific job functions and worked in the storage divisions of IT departments.

TIP's survey focused on both storage networking and storage management. Across both of those areas, it is clear what users want from vendors: Topping the list are better management tools and better interoperability (see the figure above). Surprisingly, the following issues are relatively unimportant to users:

  • Reliability improvements;
  • Standards support;
  • Improved scalability, services, and/or performance;
  • Virtualization across multiple vendors.

In general, the top issues that IT storage professionals face are the need to improve how they manage their increasingly networked storage environment, and the need to improve their disaster-recovery capabilities.

Although management of complex storage networks is a key priority, end users do not anticipate a silver bullet in the near future, particularly in the face of constrained IT budgets. One response, from an IT storage executive at a Fortune 500 insurance company, is indicative: "For storage management, we need to set priorities and realize there is functionality we need that we will just have to wait 12 to 18 months for. This is because our provider of choice does not have it and we don't have the resources-people and money-to bring in another provider."

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It is clear that administrators would prefer fewer storage management tools (maybe even only one) versus cobbling together "best-of-breed" solutions from multiple vendors. A survey respondent from a Fortune 500 healthcare organization put it this way: "The ideal is a shared infrastructure that is managed as one environment, [but] today, we have a bunch of different tools that are dependent on particular products."

Why SANs?

End users' reasons for increased spending on SANs run a wide gamut (see figure on the right), but the top four factors include managing growth, improving storage management, consolidating existing capacity, and improving backup and recovery.

Dave Taylor, chief research officer at TheInfoPro, says that SAN users consistently cited return on investment (ROI) of 12 to 18 months for SANs, which they say makes it fairly easy to justify the investment.

When asked what their primary criteria were for selecting a storage networking vendor, the four responses that topped the list (by a factor of approximately 4X) were:

  • Price;
  • Functionality;
  • Already installed other products from the same vendor; and
  • Performance and reliability.

When asked the same question about their choice of storage management vendor, users most often cited (in decreasing order) functionality, price, and already installed other products from the same vendor.

Deep discounts

Perhaps reflecting the tough economic climate and dwindling IT budgets, it's not surprising that price consistently rates high among end users' primary purchasing criteria. But much more interesting from an end-user perspective were the survey results related to vendor discounting.

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TIP's Taylor says that IT storage professionals repeatedly expressed frustration over not being able to get accurate list price information from vendors (in particular, EMC) and, as a result, not being able to accurately gauge what sort of discount they were actually getting.

On the storage networking (not management) front, of those users who were able to gauge discounts, 35% were getting discounts ranging from 30% to 49%, and 12% of the interviewees were getting 50% to 69% discounts (see figure on the right).

And high price and an unwillingness to deal was the number one reason why users rejected prospective vendors.

Emerging technologies

In the TIP survey, end users were also interviewed regarding their current, and planned, deployment of emerging technologies such as storage virtualization, iSCSI, and InfiniBand. Although those three technologies garner a lot of coverage in the trade press and considerable vendor hype, end-user adoption is not imminent.

Of the storage networking users interviewed, about 12% have implemented iSCSI, 11% are using virtualization of some form, and less than 2% are experimenting with InfiniBand. In the cases of both iSCSI and virtualization, end-user adoption is expected to pick up steam late this year or early next year.

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"Users are very familiar with iSCSI," says TIP's Male, "but as with NAS they are concerned about technical capabilities, particularly whether iSCSI will be 'industrial strength.' InfiniBand is much further out." About 10% of the respondents plan to implement InfiniBand in the second half of 2003.

As a local SAN interconnect, iSCSI is expected to start out at the departmental level, or in relatively small companies. Among the Fortune 1000 companies in the TIP survey, however, iSCSI is seen primarily as a means of connecting geographically dispersed Fibre Channel SANs over standard IP WANs. Even then, widespread deployment is not expected soon.

"iSCSI is complementary to SANs," said one executive from a Fortune 100 telecommunications company. "It will act as a gateway to the Fibre Channel SAN world, [but the standards aren't finished] and we don't expect to see viable product until early/mid 2003. Then it will take at least six months in the lab before we install it."

Virtualization is often hailed as the most hyped-and misunderstood-technology in the storage industry. Male says that the survey respondents were very familiar with the potential benefits of virtualization but were confused about how to implement it. "With both iSCSI and virtualization, users are aware of being over-hyped by vendors," says Male, "and the more a technology is hyped, the more cynicism among end users."

In the case of storage virtualization, the survey indicated that the main gating factors to end-user acceptance are a lack of standards and interoperability between products from different vendors.

Other respondents offered more-specific complaints about virtualization technology. For example, an executive from a Fortune 1000 services company said that "no vendor can make virtualization work from the application level. Any space you free up, you then must reorganize the database. This is worse than batch processing. We haven't even tried to reclaim disk as a result of this."

The TIP storage networking and management survey results encompass more than 80 pages, as well as an additional 100 pages of user "narratives" and results from interviews with 40 financial investors. The reports also include in-depth user ratings of all major storage network/management vendors on a variety of factors.

If you're an IT professional interested in participating in TIP surveys, or a vendor interested in getting full results of the surveys, visit www.TheInfoPro.net, call (212) 726-7117, or e-mail: info@TheInfoPro.net.

This article was originally published on August 01, 2002