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DIY Storage: Risk, Cost, and Benefit

In my series on DIY storage, I've written extensively about the technical details and reasons for adopting a DIY storage initiative. But I’d like to take a step back and examine the risk, cost and potential benefit of building your own SAN.

The risk is actually much less than most IT decision makers realize, and if you’re willing to do the research to be sure of your quotes, you can get pricing from reputable commodity vendors that’s way below even the most aggressive pricing you can get from the tier-one vendors, including enterprise-class support.

This means that commodity gear can be a winning strategy from both a risk and budget perspective while conveying the same net benefit, provided you do your homework on specifying the configuration carefully.

Now, commodity server equipment is cheap, but there is a difference between commodity and junk. No-name eBay white box servers and drives from unsavory overseas vendors are not the same as hardware from trusted but highly price-competitive vendors like Supermicro or Fujitsu. In my experience, prices for Supermicro hardware are 30% to50% lower on average than equivalent branded gear from tier-one vendors like Dell, HP and IBM--even with an excellent relationship the tier-one vendor.

The concern everyone has with commodity hardware is service and support, but what most people don’t realize is that hardware and software support contracts are available for top white-box vendors at highly competitive rates and at the same tiers of service that serious enterprise applications require, such as 24/7 four-hour response. In addition, more enterprise storage management operating systems have premium support options, which, when coupled with a vendor hardware contract, leave your infrastructure very much protected.

[Read how Jasmine McTigue evaluated storage software packages when she built her own SAN as a pilot project at work in DIY Storage Part 2: Picking The Right SAN Software."]

And while your tier-one vendor may say that there is a big difference in the quality of gear you’ll get from them vs. a white box vendor like Supermicro or Fujitsu, it’s simply not true. These white box servers and chassis have the same top-notch components on board as those used by Dell, HP or IBM. The difference is often that the tier-one vendors will load integrated peripherals like RAID controllers, on-board network interfaces and storage adapters with custom firmware that actually limits or abstracts their capabilities, even if the chip set is the same between two equivalent servers.

For example, Dell’s branded R700 series RAID controllers are actually LSI 2208 cards; they just run custom Dell firmware designed to lock you into Dell-only gear. While Dell has recently relaxed its stance on non-Dell firmware drives in server RAID controllers, almost all enterprise storage vendors will run only on custom firmware drives that are twice as expensive yet are actually the same model as a commodity Seagate, Fujitsu or Western Digital equivalent. And your white box storage array or JBOD will happily take the unbranded generic gear.

Top vendors also rename features and play hocus-pocus with compatibility for no reason other than to lock you in. And if you look closely at hypervisor and hardware compatibility lists, you’ll see that highly competitive white box vendors are all right there.

But suppose you don’t want to add a bunch of Supermicro or Fujitsu white boxes to your all-Dell data center? Or executive management doesn’t trust the less reputable brand? Suddenly, those commodity quotes are the best bargaining chip imaginable to pressure your tier-one vendor into providing pricing they would never have even considered without a white box quote in front of them. These folks hate losing to white box vendors, and are often prepared to sell at a considerable loss to lock in revenue and, hopefully, services, which is where the real money is at.

And while this strategy has worked with server equipment for a while now, the advent of exemplary storage software vendors like Nexenta and DataCore have made this same negotiation strategy just as viable for cut-throat deals on enterprise virtualized storage arrays. So the next time you’ve got a purchase, do yourself a favor and spec in commodity, too; there’s nothing but upside.

Find out about the impact of VDI on storage infrastructures and innovative technologies that use RAM, flash and clever software to tame the VDI storage beast in Howard Marks' session, "Storage Solutions For VDI" at Interop New York this October.