Storage integrators zero in on SANs

Storage integrators zero in on SANs

Zachary Shess

Whether it`s to help manage a multi-terabyte IT shop or the accountability of having "one throat to choke," more and more companies are turning to storage-specific systems integrators to provide customized one-stop installation and consulting services for their storage environments.

Management and accountability issues aside, storage integrators say they are being called on more to help solve backup problems, supply hardware and software, and centralize storage. Increasingly, this is taking place in storage area network (SAN) scenarios.

SANs are clearly the largest growth opportunity for storage-centric integrators. The same component interoperability issues that have proved problematic for vendors and end-users translate into big money opportunities for integrators tasked with making sense of it all.

"SANs have generated headaches, but they`re bumps in the road that we`ve endured instead of our customers," says Scott Slack, vice president of marketing at Cranel, a storage integrator in Columbus, OH. "Having been through it, the customer benefits because we can now sit down with them and share what`s real, what`s not, and what to be concerned about when you implement a SAN."

Cranel maintains 26 regional offices throughout the U.S., staffed by about 175 employees. The company provides storage integration, consulting services, and post-sales support to a variety of customers ranging from financial services organizations to oil and gas companies. "Storage is horizontal, so we really don`t market to specific vertical areas," says Scott Slack, vice president of marketing at Cranel.

Another storage-oriented systems integrator, Minneapolis-based Datalink provides storage integration services nationwide through its 21 offices. Starting out in 1987 as a value-added distributor selling storage products into the DEC/VMS market, Datalink today offers integration services for a wide range of platforms.

In addition to selling storage devices including tape libraries, RAID arrays and software, Datalink is an authorized trainer for software from Legato Systems and Veritas Software.

Datalink`s vice president of engineering, Scott Robinson, believes experienced storage-centric integrators are needed to help users evaluate the increasing number of products and vendor "solutions," particularly in the SAN arena.

"A large portion of our customers are looking to an independent provider to come in and give the scoop on what`s real, what works in a heterogeneous environment, and then provide expertise to get it done," says Robinson.

Perhaps the only thing as new as SANs are the SAN-specific integrators cropping up to help customers tackle the complexities. One startup, Sagitta Performance Systems, of Columbus, OH, spun off from Xyratex in November 1997, to offer SAN integration, consulting, and training services. Sagitta has offices in Columbus, Chicago and New York City. Despite a staff of only 10, the company claims strengths in its diverse knowledge of a variety of operating systems, including HP-UX, Solaris, AIX, Novell, and Windows NT.

"The reality is you have multiple platforms in a SAN environment and you probably want to talk to an integrator who understands all those platforms, and there`s just not a lot of people who do," says David Witt, Sagitta`s president.

Witt says backup is one of the primary issues behind the interest in SANs: "One of the biggest reasons we get into accounts is backup, and backup is one of the strongest reasons for implementing a SAN."

While SANs are expected to broaden revenue streams for storage integrators, they still face immediate competition from large system vendors offering integration services and, down the road, outsourcing services. Storage-centric integrators combat that by offering diverse product lines and specialized services.

Datalink`s Robinson believes buying storage is now a strategic purchase that no longer has to be tied to the server acquisition. He credits SANs for separating server purchasing decisions from storage purchasing decisions.

"For now, SAN implementations are mostly homogeneous, but as administrators start to deploy SANs in heterogeneous environments, they will be less likely to rely on Sun for expertise in NT storage, for example," says Robinson.

While still somewhat unsure of the concept or its ultimate success, some integrators see storage outsourcing as a potential threat, while others expect it to represent an additional service to provide.

"With storage growing so rapidly, some people may find that the logical solution is to offload it to someone else," says Robinson. "But that`s the exception now, and whether it will take root is hard to say."

While companies generally want more centralized control of their storage, Sagitta`s Witt says outsourcing will be a way to broaden an integrator`s services. However, he acknowledges that it will take a while for outsourcing infrastructures to get into place.

This article was originally published on September 01, 1999