The storage industry got a lot more competitive this morning, as Dell announced plans to buy 3Par. This is the latest round in a well-established race for the enterprise storage dollar, challenging superpower (and Dell partner) EMC in the high-end SAN space. What does this acquisition say about the industry as a whole? Where are we headed?
I’ve long wished for a new enterprise storage superpower. Competition is good for everyone, and the enterprise storage space has always been highly competitive. Traditional SAN storage powers (EMC, HDS, HP, and IBM) have been under continual attack from tech-heavy upstarts like EqualLogic, LeftHand, Compellent, Xiotech, and 3Par. The smaller (revenue-wise) NAS market has been more serial, with NetApp knocking off Auspex, then challenged by EMC. Yet innovators have been thick there as well, from Exanet to Ibrix, Isilon to Onstor.
Through it all, one thing has been clear: The major companies, though perhaps lagging in technology, were usually able to withstand the attack of the upstarts through sheer strength of salesforce. Storage is a strategic investment, and selection of a storage platform is much more far-reaching than many IT product decisions. The inertia of an installed storage environment makes it a real challenge to switch vendors, giving the established players massive leverage.
It became clear to me and many others that the best way for upstart companies (and, by extension, technologies) was to be part of an established vendor’s sales process. OEM relationships were a big part of this (witness the success of BlueArc and even NetApp and HDS) but acquisition was a much stronger proposition. If customers were warmer to OEM products than independent sales, they are much hotter when it comes to acquired technology. HP, Dell, IBM, and EMC have all demonstrated the power that comes when an established company buys a startup and puts the power of their sales force behind these new products.
This explains Dell’s fantastic success with EqualLogic. They took a product that was emerging as dominant in its niche (midrange iSCSI SAN) and blasted it into the market, while at the same time optimizing manufacturing and deployment. EMC did the same with Clariion and DataDomain, and HP is showing strong signs of health with LeftHand and Ibrix. Then there is IBM, who took XIV out of Israel and made it a source of irritation to the rest of the industry.
Many industry watchers have long wondered what would happen if the smaller guys got together, forming a new superpower of their own. Would 3Par, BlueArc, and Sepaton be a real challenger? What about Xiotech or Compellent and Isilon or FalconStor? Is mixing and matching some smaller companies a recipe for success? The answer was often a counter-question: What if someone like Dell, who knows how to manufacture and sell, picked them up instead? This seemed much more like a sure-thing, since the established management and financials stave off potential integration issues.
It appears that this is the future. Established players will pick up smaller companies, fortifying their offerings and accelerating sales in a way the little guys weren’t capable of. Dell’s billion-dollar acquisition of 3Par reportedly headed off a similar offer from HP, and will likely spark another acquisition. I imagine the management teams at Compellent and Xiotech just got a lot busier…
Clearly, Dell and HP are playing this game. IBM and EMC are in it, too. But what about Cisco and Oracle? Could they be planning storage acquisitions of their own, to the detriment of partners like EMC and Hitachi? What about the strong contingent from Japan, NEC and Hitachi? And who gets picked up next? We shall see!