Storage utilities: The next disruptive technology

By Kirby Wadsworth

When Clayton Christiansen began researching the concept of disruptive technologies, the storage industry's checkered history of triumphant startups and apocryphal bankruptcies proved fertile ground. In the storage industry, Christiansen, a Harvard Business School professor, found critical clues leading to the formulation of his disruptive technology theory detailed in his 1997 bestseller the

As in the 1980s and 1990s, the impact of disruptive technologies continues to shape the storage industry.

According to Christiansen, low-end vendors who offer less-sophisticated technologies inevitably overturn established market leaders. While these disruptive low-end technologies initially lack the features and functionality required by high-end customers, they offer lower costs, new form factors, and other attractive features that create new markets.

As the disruptive technology takes hold, providers rapidly improve their offerings, steadily increasing their markets. Rather quickly, the disruptive technology reaches a point where it provides equal or better business value than older mainstream technologies. When high-end customers perceive the new technology as good enough, wholesale migration takes place.

When this occurs, managers at the previously established market leaders react with shock and confusion as their best customers suddenly disappear. These managers have followed the rules, listened to their customers, incrementally improved their products, and diligently met their customers' demands. But suddenly, their customers leave and their businesses begin to unravel.

Worse yet, the mainstream technology, loaded with the enhancements and associated overhead, is overkill for the vast majority of the market. Features previously considered necessary to attract and support large high-end customers are no longer valued. These high-end products can no longer compete and cannot be revamped quickly enough to meet the challenge of the disruptive technology. The result: mainstream technology vendors exit the business, buy one of the new vendors, or are themselves acquired.

Today, modular architectures are overtaking monolithic, proprietary architectures. And just as modular storage architectures become mainstream, another disruptive technology-the storage utility-has appeared on the horizon.

Open, modular storage is the disruptive technology currently driving change in the storage industry. Modular architectures, based on industry standards, initially delivered limited business value in comparison to monolithic products. When introduced several years ago, modular storage systems could not address the requirements of high-end storage customers.

Modular vendors quickly innovated and added value to their offerings, rapidly raising the capabilities of the modular architectures and extending their market appeal. They added support for heterogeneous operating systems, increased capacities and performance, provided higher levels of availability, and introduced Fibre Channel storage area networks (SANs). Now those vendors are adding layers of software and tools to create full disaster tolerance and enterprise-class storage management.

However, modular storage may now be challenged by another disruptive technology-the storage utility. A nascent technology today, the storage utility concept rejects the idea that organizations need to buy and operate storage systems at all. Instead, storage utility proponents contend that organizations want information and application availability and reliability, not storage products. They want a low-cost, flexible storage service that allows them to simply plug a system into the wall to access information and applications, store and retrieve unlimited amounts of data, and ensure against the loss of data.

The storage utility is just beginning to appear on IT managers' radar screens. Business models are still evolving, with storage vendors, independent startups, and established network providers vying for position. Large storage customers, as expected, are hesitant. While it certainly is inadequate for the vast majority of storage needs today, storage utility technology is rapidly improving and should be more than adequate for most customers in the not too distant future.

Kirby Wadsworth is vice president of marketing in Compaq's Storage Products Division (www.compaq.com), in Shrewsbury, MA.

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Kirby Wadsworth
Compaq Storage Products Division

This article was originally published on April 01, 2000