SMBs Get Some Love From Storage Vendors
With millions of sophisticated small businesses, there's plenty of opportunity but only for vendors who understand the customer base.
Name a player in the data storage arena and there's no doubt that vendor has at least one, if not more, products aimed at the small-and medium-sized business. Just look at the past few months; there's been a flurry of device launches with each touting how the particular solution meets the particular needs of the SMB enterprise.
Just this week IBM announced PowerVM Express, an entry-level virtualization starter kit for SMBs. Earlier this month EMC and Iomega talked about how they are collaborating on a new line of Iomega-branded network storage products for the consumer and SMB market. Last September, Dell debuted the MD3000i, which the vendor is tagging as the "more affordable alternative storage solution" for the small work environment.
On top of all those offerings from the big boys, there are the small niche players who claim their SMB solutions go much further and offer better functionalities than what they view as just stripped-down, re-fashioned traditional storage boxes.
"The last 18 months have been interesting because of the effort by major players. I think the big vendors have recognized an important aspect to the market base. If you can get your foot in the door and they're happy with your product, they'll keep you as they grow," Charles King, principal analyst at research firm Pund-IT, told InternetNews.com. "The challenge is how to reach that market in a way that makes sense financially."
One vendor, HP, is an example of that accomplishment. It's one of the few vendors who've been entrenched in the market for a while. "They [HP] have a higher share of the market right now as they've had an active channel, product visibility in the venues where small business shop," King said.
Yet the fact that HP's got roots clearly isn't deterring other major competitors, such as IBM and Dell, King said, pointing out that IBM has already formed a special Business Systems Unit for the market play.
There's no mystery about why every vendor is taking aim at the SMB marketit's growing and there's no slowdown in sight. According to the Small Business Administration Web site, SMBs employ about half of all private-sector employees and have generated 60 to 80 percent of net new jobs annually over the last decade.
"The mistake people have made in the past is in defining the SMB and looking at them as sort of a class, defined by employee numbers. But a sizable number of SMB are very aggressive and sophisticated in using IT today and vendors are catching on," King said.
In addition, according to the SBA, SMBs hire 40 percent of high tech workers and are churning out 13 times more patents per employee than large patenting firms.
"Technology has become critical for the SMB, much like how the phone was in the 1950s and 1960s. This [the SMB market] is not a single redwood tree, but a huge field of mushrooms growing at different clips," King said.
It's all good news obviously for SMBs and the tech experts helping run data protection and storage in those shops. Greater competition, after all, should bring economies of scale, better price leverage and hopefully actual specific features and functions that do help a SMB store and protect the increasing pile of data.
The big issue for customers is realizing that the best storage solution isn't necessarily the most cost-efficient, or even the ones that come in a box. As King noted, storage in the form of a software-as-a service play is also becoming a big option.
In any event, the varied options are tied to how vendors view the market, according to another industry expert.
"SMBs, in terms of actual size, behave differently as enterprises," Natalya Yezhkova, storage systems research manager for IDC, explained to InternetNews.com. "They'll have different priorities and different needs."
"For the low end, very small SMB simplicity is obviously best and price point is a factor," she said. "Up on the higher end, there may be IT expertise on board so the box doesn't have to be as easy to deploy or manage."
For example, a very limited organization may find using one vendor line the easiest to deal with, so product selection is tied to that familiarity and trust. But in mid- to high-end enterprises, the business may want specific features from various vendors and will take a heterogeneous storage approach.
The plethora of SMB storage choices is also tied to the growth and expansion of underlying technologies, from the traditional SAN to iSCSI, Fibre Channel and the NAS approach.
"In addition, a SMB has to evaluate its data storage requirements in terms of compliance and regulations, as well as capacity expectations," Yezhkova added. "There's a whole bunch of issues."
If there's one common denominator among SMB products, it's the price point. No matter how big or small the SMB may be, budget will always be a major aspect in product choice, she said.
"Price can't be overlooked, and neither can the other 'hidden' costs in storage efforts from needed tech support to expanding the system down the road," Yezhkova said.
The allure of the SMB market pie is easy to see. The regulatory, compliance and legal requirements facing even small businesses will keep growing the SMB customer base.
"Small business is a real engine in U.S. business growth," King said. "They're creating intellectual property, new inventors, they are a very entrepreneurial model. They're a very sophisticated customer base and IT is a critical resource and the winners, in terms of storage sales, will be the ones who recognize that."
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