New Trends Drive VAR Opportunity In The RAID Market
ROMB (RAID [redundant array of independent disks] on the motherboard), clustered servers, host independent RAID, and advances in RAID 5 all add up to higher margins for resellers.
A sking a group of disparate RAID (redundant array of independent disks) vendors for the latest technology trends is almost like calling restaurants and asking about their daily specials. The answers you get will most certainly be different. Such was our experience in putting together this month's RAID Tech Trends. We spoke with four different vendors and heard four different takes on what the hottest trends are.
Robert Cox, manager of channel RAID marketing for Adaptec, Inc. (Milpitas, CA), believes one of the biggest trends involves RAID on the motherboard, or ROMB. "You can't talk about RAID trends without talking about server trends," he said. "The two go hand-in-hand. Right now the largest trend in servers is shrinking form factors." According to Cox, this trend has been going on since the late 1990s. Pedestal-sized servers keep getting smaller, and most of today's users are more familiar with 1U and 2U high-density rack servers. In 2000/2001 there was actually a crossover, where rack-optimized servers became the majority of servers sold.
So what does this have to do with RAID? The change in server size has led to limited peripheral component interconnect slots and less space within the box. That means less room for the RAID controller. "Smaller servers have led to a trend of integrating the RAID controller onto the motherboard," said Cox. "The trend started in the OEM market but is now migrating into the channel as well."
The trend is significant to VARs, as it has a direct impact on price. "A few years ago a decent server running NT would cost around $5,000," said Cox. "Today there are sub-$1,000 servers out there." Unfortunately, the lower prices have literally wiped out margins for many white box resellers. Those resellers were also competing against vendors that sell ROMB and therefore had the advantage of lower RAID costs. ROMB is less expensive than 1- and 2-channel RAID controllers, which were still being sold by VARs. ROMB has now been taken into the channel, allowing VARs to take advantage of the lower price as well.
Cox noted the cost of RAID is also coming down. "In 1998 the average cost of a RAID controller was around $1,000," he said. "Today it is below $300. At the same time the number of servers deploying RAID has increased from 35% to probably over 50%."
RAID 5 Eliminates Performance Degradation
Peter Doob, VP and RAID customer liaison at MTI Technology (Anaheim, CA) said the problem with talking about RAID is that the different RAID levels are pretty well established. However, he has seen a trend in which certain levels of RAID are being used more frequently now than in the past. RAID 5 seems to be the level gaining the most momentum.
"If you look at controller RAID, where RAID is actually being performed on controllers rather than on the host systems, you will see that RAID 5 is more prevalent than it was in the past," he said. "That is not because of RAID 5 in and of itself, but because controllers now have cache, and in particular, write-back cache." Doob explains that the database performance degradation after a failure, which users used to get with RAID 5, would steer them away from the technology. Many of those same end users are now using RAID 5 because the controller cache is mitigating some of that degradation.
In the future, Doob predicts even more widespread usage of RAID 5 and less utilization of RAID 1 (mirroring). "Since September 11, everyone is concerned about disaster recovery and business continuance," he said. "Replicating your mission-critical data to an off-site location is extremely important. RAID 5 is an inexpensive way to perform that replication. VARs should make sure the storage they provide has the capability to do RAID 5."
Keeping RAID Flexible
Bill Bedford, VP of technical marketing at Raidtec (Alpharetta, GA), approached our trends question with a question of his own. "One of the questions I often hear from the channel," he said, "is whether or not RAID is, or is becoming, a commodity." That question hits at the heart of the technology. Reseller margins are obviously an important part of that equation because RAID solutions that are attractive to VARs cover a wide spectrum of storage.
At the entry (single-server) level, Bedford acknowledges there is a trend towards ROMB. However, that is the area where he feels commoditization is occurring. Bedford has found that the more interesting architectural issues and value-add opportunities (and hence higher margin opportunities) will continue to be in host independent RAID. "With host independent RAID, the storage can be connected to a variety of protocols," he said. "An end user can start with a single server with a single type of interface [typically SCSI [small computer system interface] or ATA [advanced technology attachment]] but very quickly and easily move to different interface options with higher bandwidth and more networking options."
More options also mean increased opportunity for VARs, if they have the required expertise. "Today a VAR can take an external form-factor RAID system and make it a NAS [network attached storage] environment," he said. "They can also take a stand-alone RAID system and, with Fibre Channel, make it into a SAN [storage area network] environment." The benefits do not end there. Bedford noted that going forward, VARs will have new opportunities provided by iSCSI (SCSI protocol over TCP/IP [an open communications language]) and InfiniBand, as well as advancements in Fibre Channel moving to 2-gigabit and beyond. "RAID is scalable and flexible," he added. "Each enhancement that is added to a RAID system increases its margin potential. But the VAR first has to be able to recognize those opportunities. They have to be consultants, and not just order takers."
Server Clustering Enters The RAID Arena
Finally, Cameron Crandall, field applications engineer at StorCase Technology (Fountain Valley, CA), believes the hottest trend in RAID involves server clustering - having two separate servers attached to a single RAID enclosure. In the past, only one server could be attached to a RAID enclosure. Clustering is now done for failover purposes.
A new product called Microsoft Cluster Server (MSCS) enables server clustering. MSCS is now shipping with Windows 2000 Advanced Server and Windows 2000 Datacenter Server. "MSCS is a good technology and a lot of people are buying into it," said Crandall. System integrators and end users all want to know how to set up this type of RAID system."
The software allows for two separate servers, a primary and a backup, with a connection between the two. If one of the servers goes down, the backup server takes over. Therefore, it has to be connected to the same resources (disk drives) that the primary server is connected to.
"MSCS keeps getting more popular as end users become aware of it," said Crandall. "That excitement should create additional opportunity for VARs." According to Crandall, Microsoft has printed white papers on the technology, but has not addressed all of the hardware aspects of putting it together. "They have focused more on the software, and then mentioned that you need two separate systems connected to a single storage enclosure," he said. "That is not traditional storage, and it is taking extra effort by the enclosure manufacturers to address those issues."
In talking to these vendors, one point becomes clear. RAID and RAID components may be getting cheaper, but low margins do not have to be the end result. By keeping up on the latest technologies, VARs can continue to add value and reap higher profits as a result.