Storm brewing over storage

He’s sneering again.

It happens every time Mark Canepa mentions EMC, even if he’s not referring to the company by name. We’re sitting in a boardroom at the Marriott Hotel in downtown Toronto, where the Sun Microsystems executive vice-president of storage products has come up from the U.S. to meet with Canadian customers. Inevitably, the competition’s name comes up again and again.

Canepa can’t seem to hide his contempt. It’s not because EMC has faced financial troubles recently — with a fourth-place finish in storage market share according to recent IDC figures, Sun isn’t in a position to gloat. Instead, Canepa’s sneering at what he considers EMC’s proprietary attitude towards the management of data storage in the enterprise, an approach he believes limits customer flexibility.

“EMC talks a lot about hyper-consolidation,” he says, referring to the idea of combining disparate storage systems into fewer, high-capacity systems. “They don’t seem to recognize the concept that customers may have to deal with multiple storage vendors. The second point is they don’t seem to realize that hyper-consolidation can be hyper-expensive. Customers are not necessarily interested in paying a high premium for that degree of centralization.”

Canepa’s comments, particularly with regard to multiple vendors, underscores the importance Sun is placing on the partnership it formed with Hitachi Data Systems just over a month ago. The deal allows Sun to sell HDS’s Lightning 9900 systems, filling a hole in its enterprise product portfolio that had been dogging the company for several years.

It must have been galling for Sun to see EMC grow its market share, at least in part, on the backs of its own installed base. Though percentages vary depending on who you talk to, experts say that EMC has managed to attach a significant portion of its storage devices on to Sun servers.

“We found ourselves moving deeper into the data centre than we expected,” he said. “The E10 K’s success outran our ability to put the storage behind it.”

Sun is hoping to parlay its strength in the server market to get the Lightning 9900 into the highest reaches of the enterprise. “In the enterprise environment, whoever wins the server piece will drag along the storage as well,” said Ed Candolini, the recently-appointed president of HDS Canada.

But this isn’t just a hardware battle. In fact, Candolini admitted that unlike EMC, those IT managers who choose HDS’s newer architecture have to change their applications as well. “There are some cost issues associated with that,” he said, looking somewhat uncomfortable. “We try to make it as open and interoperative as we can.”

While there is much to be said for openness, Sun’s strategy fails to take into account the possibility that some enterprise customers may want to work with fewer storage companies, not more. That’s what will make the integration of its sales channels so critical.

Bill Cook, Sun’s vice-president of global network storage sales, said he was aware of the potential channel conflicts but that he was confident the company could provide the incentives necessary to get its field sales force selling the HDS product. “We’ve been in partnerships that didn’t work,” he said, acknowledging that the company would also have to try and convert Sun VARs selling EMC products. “It’s not that they offer a homogenous solution, but there’s no question we will work closer with them to buy into that pitch.”

Sun is best known for the noise it makes about Microsoft, but EMC will prove a tougher foe. Not because EMC is so powerful, but because the storage market is already suffering from intense competition. When faced with so many choices, many customers stick with what works. Sun and HDS have to present a single face to the customer without actually merging. If they start stepping on each other’s toes, it won’t take long for IT managers to wipe that sneer off Canepa’s face.

sschick@plesman.com

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