IBM Finds a Suite Spot in Software-Defined Storage

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  February 3, 2016

Like other “software-defined” products in the IT industry landscape, software-defined storage (SDS) has been enjoying boom times lately. That’s due to both the changing needs of enterprise customers and the creativity of IT marketing professionals. I’m not suggesting that some vendors are promising more than they can deliver, but any time an IT product category gets hot, “caveat emptor” becomes an uncommonly valuable attribute for customers to cultivate.

That said, in the midst of nearly every boom you can find quality products and vendors doing interesting things, and to my mind IBM’s new Spectrum Storage Suite qualifies on both counts. Pund-IT Review guest commentators have delved into the guts of IBM’s announcement. The Mesabi Group’s David Hill’s commentary was in last week’s Review and can also be found here, and Clabby Analytics’ Jane Clabby’s report is included in this week’s issue, and can also be found here.

Personally, I’d like to consider the ribbon and bow on IBM’s SDS package – it’s “suite” packaging and pricing models – and why that matters to IBM, the company’s customers and its partners.

Tower of Babel storage

To begin, here are a few general thoughts on SDS. Like other software-defined technology products, SDS solutions are designed to support virtualized environments and enable customers to perform storage management and policy-based provisioning with applications/tools that are not bound to any specific hardware platform.

Those last three words underscore the value proposition of SDS since, in traditional offerings like direct attached storage (DAS), storage area network (SAN) and network attached storage (NAS), vendors provide proprietary software designed specifically for their homegrown solutions. However, most organizations buy storage and other IT products from numerous vendors, resulting in heterogeneously complex “Tower of Babel” IT environments that degrade IT infrastructure efficiency and staff productivity.

SDS vendors don’t want to tear down these Towers so much as supplant confusing management and provisioning schemas with common solutions that work like “universal translators” and span multiple storage platforms and functions. In IBM’s case, Spectrum Storage offerings combine numerous well-tested management assets, including the company’s General Parallel File System (GPFS) and tools from its XIV and Tivoli families. The company also plans to invest up to $1B in R&D efforts to expand the Spectrum Storage family.

Suite somethings

Good enough, but why is IBM’s “suite” packaging and pricing model such a big deal? For a couple of reasons. First and foremost, because of its simplicity. Customers pay according to the physical capacity (measured in terabytes – TBs) of usable physical capacity they’re using Spectrum Storage solutions to manage and provision. That’s it, and if you don’t consider that an important point, your organization hasn’t been through a tediously complicated, often painfully expensive software audit.

Also important is the flexibility of Spectrum Suite licensing options. IBM offers licenses for both capital expenditure (CAPEX) and operational expenditure (OPEX) budgeting strategies, as well as an OPEX model specifically designed for service providers. There’s also a “Sandbox” option for Spectrum Storage Suite licensees, meaning that active customers can freely run Spectrum Storage applications in testing/evaluation environments without being charged for the capacity being managed.

Why that’s beneficial gets back to the elemental qualities of IBM’s approach. Software suites are far more common in endpoint solutions than they are in the data center with Microsoft’s Office leading the parade. But consider that, while customers may buy Office because it’s simpler and more cost-effective than purchasing Word, Excel and PowerPoint separately, the suite also offers them access to Outlook, OneNote and Publisher.

It may take a while for customers to determine whether and how to use those solutions but they aren’t dinged for experimenting. Similarly, IBM customers may license the Spectrum Suite Suite mainly to use its Control, Virtualize and Archive functions. But as they gain experience with those solutions, they can freely use sandbox environments to explore the features and potential value of Spectrum Protect, Accelerate and Scale.

Final analysis

Suite-style packaging/pricing is rare in enterprise data center software and I’m not aware of other storage vendors offering anything remotely similar to IBM’s Spectrum Storage Suite. The company’s approach has obvious benefits for customers, but IBM’s channel partners also stand to gain. Why so? Because though they are the main points of contact for many business customers.

So if or when vendors ship poor products or engage in dodgy licensing schemes, their channel partners get an earful from irate customers. It may seem simplistic to consider, but the relative uniqueness of IBM’s simplified suite-style packaging and pricing could well result in improved customer satisfaction. If so, clients and the channel will be in the cheering section.

The Spectrum Storage Suite launch looks promising, but IBM still has some distance to go. In particular, it will be critical for the company to continue improving and simplifying the Spectrum Storage user interface. That may seem easier said than done, but the company’s stated plans for sizable storage investment and the success of the revitalized IBM Design organization offers solid reasons for hope.

Additionally, the company’s storage organization has suffered declining sales for 3+ years, due in large part to the same issues and pressures impacting the rest of the traditional storage market. Simplified product packaging and pricing obviously isn’t enough to fix such deeply ingrained, systemic issues, but the Spectrum Storage Suite is evidence of a new brand of thinking in IBM Storage.

If that’s the case and the Spectrum Storage Suite becomes simply the first or latest of a series of innovative, software-defined storage solutions, IBM and its storage organization should be on the road to recovery.

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