The SMB Storage Gap

Let's take a hard look at what's really missing from SMB storage products

September 20, 2007

4 Min Read
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Are small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs), as Michael Dell asserts, "under-served by storage vendors? Perhaps. But one can also ask: What sector of the broad and generic SMB market is being under-served? And is that due to lack of product functionality, price, or ease of use? Is it even easy to buy an SMB storage solution?

Answers to all these questions depend on your definition of the SMB market itself, which is broad and diverse. It ranges from the small office home office (SOHO) that makes up the “small” in SMB to what some might think of as small enterprises, the “medium” portion. I regularly see various classifications based on the number of employees, the number of servers or amount of storage, the annual revenue, or even the amount spent on IT.

Products are classed for the SMB market according to pricing, capacity, or functionality, as well as sales channel (direct, VAR/distributor, or OEM).

Despite this multilayered pigeonholing exercise, coherent product strategies are rare.

There are several reasons for this state of affairs. A common theme I hear from technology vendors, particularly those racing to adapt or embrace the SMB market (whichever part of it they are pursuing), is that simple, easy-to-use GUIs and setup wizards are the silver bullet and differentiator for SMB-focused solutions. Another battle cry has to do with what other vendors don’t offer or don't include in their solutions.All this shows a clear lack of understanding of the competitive marketplace, or a denial of what's really going on.

When I ask some vendors who cling to the above classification criteria about market share, adoption rates, actual shipping product revenue, customer footprints, number of systems and instances (not just the individual components that ship like disk drives, power supplies, or server blades), I often get answers that leave me wondering if many of their customers are virtual.

Of course, with some of these same vendors I also ask the clarifying question: Are the iPod or USB thumb drives they give away included in the number of installations? That usually unmasks the creative marketing math.

But SMB strategies also suffer from lack of information. Some vendors talk about performance not being important for SMB solutions, while others talk about "industry leading" performance. Yet there are no SMB-related disclosure reports or results using standard workloads from the Microsoft ESRP (Exchange Solution Reviewed Program), TPC (Transaction Processing Performance Council), SPEC, or like-minded organizations.

Without benchmarks, SMB suppliers are free to make claims about things like high availability, which is a ploy to sell multiple copies of a solution to get around single points of failure – and an old play straight out of the enterprise-class marketing handbook.So what is really important to SMBs? Ease of use, ease of installation, intuitive GUIs, and wizards are important, and should be addressed to specifically focused segments. So is price – and not the lowest price, but rather the price that represents most value. We're talking about paying for what you are going to use and not having to pay a higher price for features that really are not important to a specific customer.

But all the important technologies and features, including price, will be moot if the customer who has the need and is looking for a solution can't find a place to buy it easily.

There is a difference between ease of use and ease of buying. The latter requires brand names, channel and distribution networks, and access to technological variety. Companies like Microsoft, HP, Dell, IBM, or even Apple, to name a few, have the means to assist buyers in closing the gap between seeing and owning.

Bottom line? SMBs, SOHOs, ROBOs, and SMEs are overwhelmed with different options and choices among gear that is stripped down and over-priced, full-featured and over-priced, undersized and under-priced, or, rarity of rarities, fits just right.

Knowledge of specific SMB segment dynamics, realistic appraisal of competition, grounded claims for performance, and the means to back them up with easy-to-reach support will enable firms to succeed across the diverse expanse of opportunity known as the SMB market.We're not there yet.

— Greg Schulz is founder and senior analyst, The StorageIO Group

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  • Dell Inc. (Nasdaq: DELL)

  • Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ)

  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

  • Microsoft Corp.

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