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Storage Products vs Storage Features

As we hit the height of storage product announcement season, a common IT question keeps rearing its head: Is it a product? Or a feature?

This has been a long-standing question in IT as vendors continue to take what had been products and turn them into features. And we've also seen the reverse: Companies take features from the high-end enterprise-level suites and turn them into less-expensive standalone products for smaller businesses. The trend in other parts of IT has been that products continuously get more features, and the bar for what is commonplace keeps moving higher.

This question keeps popping into my mind as I take briefings from storage vendors bringing out a wave of new products for the small and mid-sized business market, and I'm repeatedly told: "We're the first to offer this for the SMB market." Frequently, my first reaction is: "What, this wasn't available before this?" The most common response is that it was available at the high end, but the crucial feature is just now making its way into the mid-market.

In recent weeks, I've heard a lot about data de-duplication, file virtualization, shared storage, encryption, data migration, and a host of other capabilities that can help IT managers at SMBs do a better job of handling storage. Many of these are being offered as products, and for many smaller vendors, offering a standalone product that quickly and easily solves a major problem at a low price can be a very good business -- for a while. But when the big boys want to play in that sandbox, it may be time to develop a new business plan. Lately, we've seen big boys like Dell Inc. (Nasdaq: DELL), EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC), Hitachi Data Systems (HDS) , Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) and IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) roll out new products for the SMB market that offer many of the same capabilities and features that are available in their high-end products.

Storage administrators are famously known for their long-term thinking. They hold the keys to the crucial backups and archives that businesses, and increasingly courts and regulators, require to be maintained. As one told me recently, a server can go down for an hour or a day and it isn't that big of a deal. But when a backup or an archive fails to deliver up in a timely manner the data it is supposed to hold, somebody loses their job.

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