Why doesn’t storage innovation come from the storage industry?

by Robin Harris on Monday, 20 February, 2017

For all the time and effort poured into the storage market over the last 20 years, surprisingly little innovation has come from storage vendors themselves. Why is that?

Hall of shame
EMC got its opening when IBM whiffed on the storage array business. IBM had no excuse, as the hard work had been done at Berkeley by Patterson, Gibson, and Katz, in their seminal 1988 RAID paper. Despite the clear guidance offered by the paper, it was a tiny minicomputer add-on memory vendor – EMC – that went big on RAID, giving IBM a thorough shellacking on a market it had owned for decades.

Back in the 90s most of the “advances” in arrays came from the rapid areal density increases in disk drives. Array vendors could tout larger array capacities at lower $/GB, without doing anything more than qualifying a new drive. What more could customers want?

Sun totally blew the filer market, after inventing NFS and having a nice line of servers to run it on. It took NetApp to bring file servers to enterprise respectability.

Sun also blew the chance to own a major chunk of the SAN market, despite being first to market with an all-fibre channel array, as management insisted on FC hubs, not FC switches. Brocade, a startup, did pretty well instead.

Google developed their own scale-out object storage system whose basic architecture has been the fastest growing part of the storage market for over a decade. Where was EMC or NetApp?

The PCIe flash drive was developed by folks from the supercomputer world. Fusion-io, now rolled into WD, brought high-performance internal storage to servers, starting the revolution that has caused storage to migrate into servers instead of away from them. That’s part of what forced EMC to sell itself to Dell.

What’s the problem?
In the Innovator’s dilemma Clayton Christensen theorized that the initial small size of disruptive opportunities made them unattractive to large companies that needed large revenue increments to sustain growth. And, of course, people are notoriously poor at estimating exponential growth rates, such as hyper-scale data centers and internal storage.

So not only does the initial opportunity look dubious, management didn’t properly estimate the growth potential of the new paradigms. Oops!

But there’s a larger problem with the storage industry. Vendors develop a certain mindset and simply don’t believe that their conservative storage customers are going to embrace a new and untried technology – until they do. Then it’s too late.

Instead, vendors focus on creating loopy justifications for selling more of what they already have – Information Lifecycle Management, anyone? – rather than looking beyond the past to create the future. It is left to non-storage people with a broader view – and ignored needs – to see how storage can help them get things done.

The StorageMojo take
Storage vendors are good at faster, better, cheaper. But they seem to be the last to know what the Next Big Thing is.

That’s partly because storage, as the only persistent part of today’s systems, is really hard. The corner cases can be excruciatingly complex. Many of the common assumptions underlying RAID, for example, turned out to be false in practice, which led to ever more complex and costly work arounds.

That, in turn, leads to a kind of techno-blindness, where the details of the old technology are so enthralling that the new technology doesn’t get a serious evaluation. Similarly, financial-blindness – “business is good, margins are great, why rock the boat?” – is an issue for financial management.

Customer conservatism is also a factor. Customers hate getting bit by storage failures, so when they find something that works, they tend to stay with it even if it is far from the optimal solution. That creates an echo chamber for vendors who don’t really want to hear dissenting views.

There is a new paradigm about to hit the industry, which will eviscerate large portions of the current storage ecosystem. Like other major shifts, it is powered by a class of users who are poorly served by existing products and technologies. But if our digital civilization is to survive and prosper, it has to happen. And it will, like it or not.

Courteous comments welcome, of course. I’ve done work for WD.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Petros Koutoupis February 21, 2017 at 8:16 am

The idea of sticking with “what works” definitely goes a long way. And when companies get too large, they typically enter into emerging markets via acquisitions as opposed to rolling their own products. Although by the time this occurs, markets shares are already being carved out.

Robin Harris February 22, 2017 at 8:32 am

Petros, you are correct. Giving up stepwise enhancements of existing architectures would be foolish. But when a major paradigm shift occurs, why don’t storage incumbents adapt to the shift sooner? Over 10 years ago I noted that Google was building a massive infrastructure without using legacy hardware, and yet no major storage vendor, even today, has figured out how to sell that style of infrastructure. Aren’t they the storage experts? As a result, most are in the going out of business mode. Even something as obvious as flash caused NetApp major headaches as they struggled to incorporate it. It just shouldn’t be that hard.

Robin

Ian F. Adams February 22, 2017 at 8:49 am

“Instead, vendors focus on creating loopy justifications for selling more of what they already have…”

I’d add/elaborate, at least in my experience, a part of this also is plain internal politics and turf wars that crop up in any larger organization. I’ve seen some interesting directions to take things (both personally and anecdotes from colleagues) that would require minimal investment of time and energy to at least explore for a few weeks to do a basic feasibility study or prototype. They quickly , sometimes with great gusto, would get shot down. And not because of a lack of feasibility or that it would take mission critical resources, but due to it being an existential threat to somebody else’s area or simply “not-invented-here” syndrome in a larger organization, with the latter being particularly insidious.

Andy Lawrence February 22, 2017 at 8:56 am

It isn’t just the storage industry where this kind of thing happens. Nearly every segment of the economy has a set of dominant players that are resistant to change. They see disruptive technology as a threat to be fought rather than an improvement to be embraced. It is only when some upstart company starts cleaning their clock that they wake up and either try to buy out the new company or come late to the game.

Storage is rather boring to most people (present company excepted). It is very hard to get people’s attention when you have a new way to store and manage data. Believe me, I know. Even if you do something far better than the entrenched players, most people won’t even give you the time of day.

I once had an idea of how to greatly improve existing hard drives that I thought companies like Seagate or Western Digital could have made a fortune with. I couldn’t even get them to listen to what the idea even was, let alone try to judge its merits. The idea is still applicable, but since I didn’t want to start my own hard drive company, it is still sitting in one of my drawers collecting dust.

Dimitris Krekoukias February 25, 2017 at 2:38 pm

Hi all, Dimitris from Nimble Storage.

I know that by disclosing affiliation some will automatically think I’m trying to defend certain approaches. However, let’s just look at the facts.

Certain kinds of scale-out storage topologies are inherently either:

– less reliable and/or
– have worse latency and/or
– lack automatic firmware management.

Building a scale-out storage grid isn’t really hard.

The challenge comes when one tries to make said grid extremely reliable.

For example, many hyperscale vendors that offer cloud storage as a service only offer 3 nines of uptime.

In addition, some have a 0.2% AFR (annualized failure rate).

Which means that out of 1000 volumes, 2 will go bye bye either wholly or partially.

If someone tried to sell you enterprise storage with those metrics you’d kick them to the curb.

Or orchestrating firmware updates for all components.

Very very few of the scale out architectures do this at all (some do a bit).

For more reading:

http://recoverymonkey.org/2016/08/03/the-importance-of-ssd-firmware-updates/

http://recoverymonkey.org/2016/12/01/uncompromising-resiliency/

Thx

D

Tim Wessels February 27, 2017 at 7:22 pm

Well, I wrote a blog recently on my MonadCloud.com website where I examined why Object-Based Storage (OBS) vendors have so few customers. Here is a link to it rather than pasting it all in this reply.

https://www.monadcloud.com/blog/

I hope you find it interesting because it touches on some of the issues presented by Mr. Harris but is focused on OBS vendors and what is holding back private deployments of Object-Based Storage.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a Cloudian Preferred Partner who designs and builds public, private, and hybrid OBS clusters.

Bruce Thompson March 9, 2017 at 9:20 am

Well, it might be too late to post here after I’ve returned from traveling but I have to say something….

One of the major reasons I see that the innovation doesn’t come from the storage industry is the pretty much universal inability to realize that storage and the storage industry has a large number of endemic, fundamental flaws in it. Every storage company that I’ve ever worked for or with, and I stopped counting after a hundred, fully believes their products have no problems and, conversely, solve some problem that the world is going to beat a path to their door.

Here is just one of many problems (disasters?)….

“NONE of today’s storage technologies, either individually or in combination, can protect user’s information”

That is a pretty damaging statement. Why isn’t this being addressed? Why isn’t there an emergency conference to rally the industry? Why isn’t this hammered by analysts worldwide, with the possible exception of you Robin? Why isn’t this even written down!!!!

This is only one of the massive problems being ignored by the industry. Don’t you have to admit you have a problem before you can hope to address it?

Bruce

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