Turning downturn into opportunity

Tech trek: Unlike rest of IT, storage sector handled recession with calm


A view of a data centre. The basic challenges for the storage industry were space and cost effectiveness. Getty Images

While all the sectors of the IT industry were working doubly harder to put up with the impact of global recession, storage sector seemed to have taken the blows with admirable poise and calm. There was no urgent reversal of strategies, no frantic search for the magic potion to mitigate the flagging business, but just to reformulate a few existing technology. And the rabbit did come off the hat!

Of course, some industry observers did feel the men selling storage devices are no magicians, but are merely sailing smooth on an industry whose demand has not actually plummeted to the extent of causing panic. Those at the thick of things, however, feel this is not entirely true.

Experts with large storage vendors say two major reasons account for the industry’s ability to tackle recession better than others. They had the right kind of technology and put them in place to solve the most fundamental issues in storage.

Become more effective

 “In normal times, people were able to keep adding more space since that was how they can ensure completion of projects on time,” quips Symantec India, Managing Director, Vishal Dhuper. Symantec is aiming to make an impact in the storage sector with their suite of solutions. “Even if the economic situation were to remain normal, storage still has the challenges of space and effectiveness. These are far basic problems than just flagging business and the sector recognised it long before.”

Not merely stopping with the diagnosis, storage companies, who have a strong expertise to count on, started piecing together solutions that would address the fundamental problems. At the heart of it was the way to stop physical expansion of the storage space, which, over time, would cost users dear in terms of operational expenses for floor space, power consumption and wastage of resources.

Companies like EMC and Hitachi Data Systems, known for their effective solutions, started to work early in technologies like virtualisation and thin provisioning.

According to Hitachi Data Systems, Solutions and Products Group Director (APAC)Phil Gann, the company started to develop its virtualisation solution as early as in 1995. “The question in storage is not about ROI (Return on Investment) but ROA (Return on Assets),” Gann points out.

“Storage devices, which are used to conserve data, have longer shelf lives than other IT equipments. We knew long back that stretching the lifespan of these devices will be key not just to reduce spending, but also spare organisations from constantly installing newer devices and fine-tuning their environment,” adds Gann. Such hard thinking as far back as the late 90s and early 2000s -the time when storage gradually started to wean away from servers— has prepared the vendors to overlay storage boxes with applications that would optimise the available space. “Imagine a situation where banks and large telecos were to keep loading their floors with more boxes because they ought to handle a mound of data?” asks EMC (India & SAARC), Head of Technology Solutions Sanjay Lulla.

Given that clients’ bread-and-butter-business is not IT, the task of helping them manage the heap has naturally fallen on the storage sellers. So they had started thinking around optimisation, thin provisioning, hardware alternatives, etc. These are the things that helped storage remain slimmer, but gain effectiveness at the same time.

“When a vocal environmental movement, with the backing of international agencies, started to put pressure on the IT industry to stop harming the ecology through their activities, the storage industry found new impetus to introduce many of its technologies as “Green IT,” says Lulla. Virtualisation, which started to appeal to the wider market about this time, coupled with low power and smaller sized devices emerged as some of the major components of creating a “green data centre.” Vendors also started to create awareness on the need to use the available yet-unused storage space, which analysts estimate to be in the range of 50 per cent amongst organisations using storage devices.  
“Customers, however, required a context -a crises to be precise-to understand the implications of adopting green policy,” says LSI Technologies, VP, Marketing & Product Management, Engenio Storage Group Vic Mahadevan. “The slowdown certainly jolted many of them out of their comfort zones.” 

He quotes a 2007 survey by LSI showed 36 per cent of companies in Europe -the economic block that underlined its commitment to green policies by stricter legislations and greater level of awareness- having green IT in place.

“The survey also showed that the number of companies wanting to cut space and improve utility has been increasing,” Vic adds. “Of course, companies -both in Europe and elsewhere-are going more micro in terms of saving cost. The term ‘dollar per terabyte’ has now been replaced by ‘dollar per square feet’. In a difficult recession, there isn’t anything grandiose about being green, but it is about saving every possible dollar.”

Green IT

The acceptance of green IT products wasn’t ready or enthusiastic, as even the efficient sales force of the companies found it harder to persuade customers of their tangible benefits. A change of colour-not the green to save the planet, but to save bottom lines from going red-did the trick. Now industry experts say demand for greater benefits and value come from customers.

“It is not merely about selling boxes, as customers want to know about the infrastructure. They clearly want optimisation and reorganisation of the available space. So now we are altering our line of thinking and prioritise on things like helping customers revalue and reclaim existing space,” said Lulla.

His colleague Venkatesh Iyer, who heads EMC’s backup, recovery and archiving, says customers are eager to learn how quickly return on investment (ROI) can be achieved on newer technologies. “A couple of years ago, many of them would have gladly settled for a three-year period to achieve returns on their investment, but now that time frame has shrunk to 18 or 20 months. There may be demand for storage technology, but the demand poses different kinds of challenges for us.”

In markets like India, which is sustained by Small and Medium Businesses (SMB) with little practical understanding of IT, companies are taking the message of efficiency out on the field. Symantec recently held a campaign called ‘stop buying storage space’, to make their customers realise how software application can be used to optimise storage.

Companies like EMC and Hitachi, on the other hand, are advancing release of their next generation technology to help their customers enjoy greater benefits. While Hitachi has advanced technology to recover space in existing storage devices, EMC has improved flash technology by introducing the first ever 250 and 400 GB flash drives. “Flash not only saves floor space, but it is at least 14 times more efficient than any other device.
Besides, we are also introducing new varieties of spindles capable of automatically stopping and running depending on the disk’s usage,” Lulla points out.

In the end, companies say powerful hardware, coupled with more effective software technology such as data de-duplication and well-thought-out storage policy should help companies enjoy more benefits. Of course, environment friendliness or “going green” certainly comes as a by-product.

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