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Are you getting swindled on the price of storage arrays?

At some point, you will need to carry out a forklift upgrade, but a little scrutiny during purchasing can ensure that this is the exception, not the rule.

The sales guy promised you everything you needed at a reasonable price.

The storage array was fast, manageable and covered by a break-fix guarantee. You compared it point-to-point with other vendor's products, and it looked like the best storage array in your budget. So, why are you sitting there with your head in your hands, weeping gently?

The problem is that what you bought was fit for purpose then, but is not fit for purpose now. While the speed of progress in IT means that technology has to be refreshed on a regular basis, there are still plenty of avoidable costs.

Nonstandard interfaces, bespoke items, software that doesn't support open standards, and cost cutting by not allowing firmware updates -- all inflate the cost of storage, networking, compute and other data center necessities.

The ever-changing price of storage

Data storage is a prime example of necessary versus wasteful spending caused by technological changes. About 10 years ago, integrated drive electronics (IDE) served low-end data storage, and small computer system interface (SCSI) drives existed for the high end. IDE was slow and its drive capacities were small, until it evolved to enhanced IDE, then Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA). SATA III is now comparable to the former high-end storage option -- Serial-Attached SCSI (SAS) -- and still costs less.

Nonstandard interfaces, bespoke items, software that doesn't support open standards, and cost cutting by not allowing updates to firmware -- all inflate the cost of storage, networking, compute and other data center necessities.

All these storage devices use spinning magnetic discs, which now must contend with the juggernaut that is flash storage. Flash started as a fragile and small-volume consumer storage medium for cameras, but has now become the storage medium of choice for most data center equipment vendors.

Flash storage is changing rapidly. Many vendors, such as Pure Storage, Nimble Storage and Nutanix use standard, flash-based drives that existing systems treat as fast spinning disks. Other companies such as Violin Memory and IBM use memory chip-style approaches that act as disks (through software) but can also be used differently when required -- as in IBM's Coherent Accelerator Processor Interface approach.

Storage prices -- although continuing to drop -- are still a major issue for enterprises.

Hidden costs

Even if the hardware is relatively cheap, the tools that manage and make the most of it will increase the cost of storage.

Tools that recognize only physical arrays have been left behind by storage virtualization. Those that solely deal with the virtual world found that virtual storage is still dependent on the physical drives underpinning the platform.

IT organizations that need to be at the leading (or bleeding) edge of technology usually have to buy part or all of a software package to manage their current deployment. The system isn't considered strategic due to the pace of change in the market this organization relies on.

This is a tactical strategy to get the most out of the current technology before it is replaced by another in the next forklift upgrade. But a tactical decision is not a strategic one, and confusing the two can lead IT organizations down the wrong technological path.

If your incumbent storage vendor vouched for the reliable magnetic disk over fragile, unproven flash, you probably bought a large array of SAS drives -- a strategic investment. It was the best storage array at the time, and you expected this performance to suffice for long enough to depreciate the purchase fully. But the technology evolved around you, and now this strategy is encountering problems.

One SAS drive fails, for example, which leads to a major performance slowdown as RAID 6 rebuilds. Finding a replacement for the failed drive is difficult, as the required size was discontinued, yet the array cannot accept different drive types. Your users complain that everything is slow. You want to put in a flash layer to improve performance, but the array doesn't have interfaces for solid-state drives.

Your only option is to buy another new storage array, transfer all your data over and throw away the old system -- without a replacement drive, it's not even worth sticking on eBay to recoup some funds.

Lessons learned

Think ahead when making changes to an IT platform -- what seems to be right for today almost certainly won't be for tomorrow. Understand the tactical/strategic dichotomy and that, if you need a longer-term solution, you need standards and commodity.

Ask your vendor how its current offerings interoperate with older versions. If what the vendor sells today doesn't play nicely with its previous offering, then it is likely -- no matter what the representative promises -- that it portends another forklift upgrade in the next generation.

Ask about the vendor's adherence to standards: Has it consistently kept abreast of market changes and does it fully support industry standards in its products? Has exceeding these standards created issues in interoperability with other vendors' offerings?

Are there other vendors with complementary offerings that add value to what you're buying? Talk with these partners and third parties, and ask them how easy they found it was to deal with changes to the vendor's offering.

Next Steps

Parse what goes into the true cost of data storage

Look into the top products in storage

This was last published in October 2014

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