All Bundled Up But Not an Enterprise Appliance

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Backup appliances now have some maturity. How mature are they really? Unfortunately, not very.  Why? Backup appliance vendors have resorted to bundling rather than architecting purpose-built appliances. Bundling simply packages a server and storage with off-the-shelf software. And, now, these “immature” bundles are starting to crumble the appliance revolution.

Customers appear to be falling back to software-only purchases, because the bundled appliance offerings aren’t that helpful. It’s my contention that data protection software companies are to blame for appliances getting a bit of a bad name. When customers purchase poorly designed bundled appliances, they’re not very happy with the appliance sales pitch expectations.

The primary providers of data protection continue to be software companies over specific appliance providers (including disk appliance manufacturers). These folks now offer a pitched bundle of hardware to go with their software, but the software remains the driving force behind the solutions.

The appliance providers should be building complete solutions “purposely built” as automated solutions. What we regularly see in the marketplace for competition against our enterprise backup appliance remains the same old software-only technology pitches. 

Customers often don’t care about the backup engine in a purposely built enterprise backup appliance. Automation, simplification, management and scalability matter to them.

How do appliances differ?

Why did the big players get into this business? They got into it because customers like the idea of an appliance. On the low-end field, a handful of players built their business around basic backup, commodity boxes. We’ve concentrated on the mid-market, more complex enterprise customers, and over the past few years, have been building very happy and large customer bases with purpose-built backup offerings. The software providers heard their customers, and have responded with appliances. Well, bundles, anyway.

Are all the appliances and technology options the same? Given the basic designs of hardware, storage, connectivity and legacy software, aren’t they just a bunch of the same pieces put together by different folks? Interestingly, the simplification of backup solutions should be further along. We should have some standards. Those of us in the purpose-built space have been building appliances for years. The software-only offerings have not made any real changes. They have muddied the ease of buying a solution by continuing to disregard the necessary integrated hardware.

I’m not talking about the low-end backup appliance boxes, which provide simple copy functions from production to a local or even remote disk. Those are here.

I’m talking about enterprise, mid-market corporate environments with dozens to hundreds of terabytes, multiple locations, virtualized servers and storage, and IT shops with more than a handful of folks. I’m talking about time-saving centralized policies and efficient management tools implemented in a distributed world. I’m talking about service that covers the full gamut of the solution with one notification request, phone call or email.

Folks in the information management field are the ones looking for policy controls and flexibility to meet data protection goals and objectives. Information management executives and operators work in enterprise environments. Simple copy routines from basic backup appliances will not help. Software offerings that disregard the solution nature of data protection (properly pre-configured servers, correct speeds and sizing in storage, and appropriate levels and breadth of connectivity) won’t help either.

The reasons for automating a typical “pieces and parts bundled solution” into an enterprise appliance identify the very elements for how appliances are different—software, technologies, hardware, support and the “other” parameters—explained below.

Software is the ultimate automation transformer of all time. It is just a bunch of weightless ones and zeros without hardware, but frankly, the software rules. And, the software folks dominate the conversations at the enterprise level. The hardware bells and whistles are not really that interesting. Disks dictate the storage in data protection now, and powerful servers are a common commodity. Customers are attracted to the software discussions, and often make their decisions without full knowledge of the hardware requirements.

Consider the database engine of the software and its ability to manage complexity. Users expect a “relational” database in the software. The database must expand into dizzyingly huge sizes. Limits on growth send backup administrators into apoplexy. The big software providers who can’t get very large in their database will fall back on the hardware to solve this problem, forcing customers to buy a larger number of hardware implementations to get what they need.

Key considerations

In the appliance implementation of these software packages, though, many competitive topics get left out of the discussion between solution vendors (including their resellers) and their customers. Here are the important aspects of a “purposely built” enterprise backup appliance.

Support and maintenance: The cost of appliance support should follow industry expectations for a comprehensive support contract. Basic support should be about 10 percent of the cost of the solution with more comprehensive (24x7 and diagnostic/break-fix) in the 15-20 percent range.  Many three-year standard appliance contracts do not include diagnostics, which determines the source of the problem. Costs should include everything inside the appliance under one agreement. Diagnostic support defines the appliance offering. To diagnose means to root out the source of the problem, from software to hardware, and then proceed to fix that for the customer. 

Positioning: Backup and data protection are sold in so many ways and with so many flavors today that positioning an appliance against competing backup appliances has become a huge, complicated endeavor. Appliance manufacturers should offer a feature/benefits line-up regarding robust technologies, easy-to-use operations and head-to-toe support measures that are able to help buyers size up the competition. Software companies selling bundle-only packages that aren’t really purpose-built appliances ignore the hardware considerations and options in their sales pitches.

Financial factors: The mix of return on investment and cost of ownership with backup still leads the buying decisions. Due to the breadth of licensing options and long-term, heterogeneous scalability, appliances can offer various pricing options. While customers praise the one-price elegance of the appliance, more financial benefits actually exist in the long-term ownership than the initial cost savings. Software backup sales pitches don’t give a hoot about long-term considerations. In fact, backup software sales folks masqueraded as appliances hide future costs of required add-ons (database agents, target deduplication, encryption, VM management, etc.). A true enterprise appliance provides all of those functions with the appliance and confirms with a customer any extra costs they would need to add on later.

Quoting and configuration: Appliances strive to expand both capabilities and technologies into their architecture and implementation while simplifying the finished product as it fits into increasingly complex environments. The configuration and quote experience counts toward a customer’s decision-making. The better solutions simplify the process through the expertise and assistance of well-trained representatives and resellers. The backup software sales pitch purposely ignores the hardware costs and implementation nightmares that customers will have to experience. 

Licensing options: Customers with few machines and a lot of data do not want license pricing based upon customers with numerous machines and smaller amounts of data. Virtual machines crammed into one huge server should not be priced the same as one operating system on a similarly sized server. The offering of license options is an important part of the backup appliance consideration. The customer needs both machine-based and capacity licensing, and even more options. Some data protection software sales folks will undersell the capacity licensing actually needed for a full implementation using language like “only buy what you need now” to present a rather inexpensive-looking deal in order to distract customers from the high cost of capacity licensing growth. 

Day in the life of an administrator: While the purchase of an enterprise backup appliance may seem to focus on price and features, the deciding factor often results from the efficiency and flow of operations. Both management and operators look for how the appliance assists them in getting their jobs done and how practical the appliance accomplishes those tasks. The job of data protection goes beyond software-only knowledge. Purpose-built appliances remove the hassle of combining and maintaining a solution, while software-only backup sales throw off hardware issues as if they were non-issues. Au Contraire!

Model options: Not all customers are alike, and while the engine of the appliances may be the same, and even the hardware parts are similar, the implementation and licensing can be designed to fit differing customer expectations. Appliances that offer enterprise options for the larger companies will provide better scalability than small, departmental build-on appliances. The bundled software and hardware providers often toss software and hardware together in such a manner that customers cannot expand their software components. The least expensive hardware parts get thrown into the mix in order to hide the more expensive software costs.

The software engine of an appliance defines the breadth of an offering at only one level. Use these other parameters to help decide which one fits you or your customer best.

About the author:

John Pearring is manager of sales and marketing for STORServer. As STORServer’s president from 1995 to 2008, Pearring built the original OEM alliances and the original e-business infrastructure for the company. For more information go to