Virtualization storage innovations challenge market leaders

Startups are challenging established vendors with storage innovations, but will they be able to sustain their momentum as market leaders catch up?

Virtualization transformed data centers and restructured the IT hardware market. In this time of change, startups seized the opportunity to carve out a niche for products like virtualization-specific storage. But are these newcomers like Nutanix and Fusion-io here to stay or will they struggle to compete as established companies catch up with storage innovations of their own?

For a long time, it appeared storage vendors were growing complacent. A few interesting features would pop up from time to time, and performance was steadily improving, but there were few exciting breakthroughs. Users weren't demanding new features, and vendors weren't making it a priority to deliver storage innovations. Virtualization changed that tired routine.

Startups see opening in new demand for storage

Virtualization ushered shared storage into the spotlight. While existing storage was reliable, end users demanded more. They needed more storage capacity than ever, and performance requirements were growing even faster. Deduplication, compression and thin provisioning stepped up to address capacity concerns, while storage tiering addressed performance concerns. Established storage leaders like EMC Corp. and NetApp Inc. leveraged these new technologies to improve their lines of battle-tested and proven arrays. Storage technology improved, but virtualization continued to present a moving target for storage design.

It wasn't long before several smaller vendors and technology startups seized the opportunity to challenge the storage giants to think outside the box. Fusion-io developed a concept of leveraging the blinding speed of NAND flash memory to create an all-flash storage PCI card solution that worked like a local hard drive for hypervisors. This brought unbelievable speed and throughput to the hypervisor.

At the same time, Atlantis Computing Inc. developed a way to use RAM within a hypervisor to create a large storage cache for existing back-end storage. By also leveraging deduplication, Atlantis Computing was able to improve performance and capacity.

Nutanix really shook things up, as it introduced a new hardware platform that would leverage both local hard drives and Fusion-io cards. The hard drives and Fusion-io cards from multiple hypervisors were grouped together to appear as one shared storage device. Stretched across a minimum of three nodes, this approach was reliable, easy to manage and very effective.

Market leaders have storage innovations of their own

But, let's not forget the giants. Once you reach the top of the hill, you have an advantage over the challengers. The bigger vendors like NetApp and EMC have not been sitting idle. They, too, have talented and creative teams working to design the next storage innovations. They may not be as nimble as some of the newcomers, but they have both the experience and capital to compete on the storage landscape. Sometimes they simply acquire new and innovative technologies, slashing research and development time to integrate a similar technology into their own products. Other times, they leverage their massive resources and industry expertise to extend new technologies to existing platforms. In both scenarios, they present a very real threat to these startup vendors. A perfect example of this could be found in EMC's purchase of the all-flash array vendor XtremIO. When this product launches as a part of the EMC product line, it promises to really shake up the market.

As new vendors continue to push the envelope and solve increasingly complicated storage puzzles, how long will they be able to thrive in the shadows of giants? As virtualization has raised the bar, both new and old storage vendors have answered the call. But the research and development funds of the big vendors present a very large hurdle to overcome. Even more daunting is their marketing presence, and their ability to quickly get product information to a large and well-targeted audience. For the last few years, I have been on the edge of my seat as I watched new storage innovations come to the market at lightning speed. In the next few years, I will be anxious to see which of these startups will continue to innovate, which will be acquired and which may simply fade away.

This was first published in March 2013

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