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How Storage Startups Crack into The Giant Market

It's no secret the storage system market is ruled by a handle of top-tier vendors, such as EMC , IBM , HP , Dell and Hitachi Data Systems .

These companies command some 95 percent of a total disk storage market that IDC said notched $24.4 billion in 2006. But there's still a few billion dollars to be made in the storage system market by companies that don't bear the behemoth names.

So what does it take for a startup to crack into a market that is all but locked up by a handle of the world's largest high-tech companies? Is it luck? Performance? Simplicity? Economic efficiency?

Try a little of all of the above.

Gartner's Roger Cox said startups accounted for 3.5 percent of the storage system market in 2005, and he expects that number to be higher when the 2006 figures come out later this month.

Such alternative vendors include Pillar Data Systems, BlueArc, EqualLogic, Lefthand Networks, 3PAR, Compellent and agámi Systems, which has recently come to market.

StorageIO analyst Greg Schulz said that in the area of performance, bigger and established doesn't always mean faster. Moreover, more drives, host ports or cache on a system do not guarantee faster performance.

Schulz pointed to agámi Systems, which recently introduced a hybrid storage server capable of concurrently storing file, or network-attached storage (NAS) , and block-based data via Internet-based storage area network technology, or iSCSI .

Other vendors make hybrid systems that handle SAN and NAS, but Schulz said agámi promises very good performance -- 1 gigabyte per second -- with slower and fewer disks because the company's systems are efficiently put together.

"They will win on performance as a differentiator, or a combo of performance and features," Schulz said. "Agámi doesn't have things popular in NAS like clustering for high availability, yet they can replicate one agámi box to the other, which gives you failover protection."

Taneja Group Founder Arun Taneja said competition is so tough these days that startups almost have to have a value proposition "where the listening party has to consider himself to be stupid not to seriously look at it.

"It has to be so attractive and genuine that you cannot not do it," Taneja said. "That's really what a startup has to do in this day and age to get any traction particularly on enterprise. SMB receptivity is much better to a startup because they don't have the same restrictions big Wall Street companies have."

Taneja looked to a company like Lefthand Networks, which sells boxes like everyone else but seeks to really differentiate with its provisioning capabilities.

Taneja said Lefthand simplified iSCSI storage using a nodal architecture that enables storage administrators to provision terabytes of storage in roughly five clicks, or seconds.

This efficiency, Taneja said, basically made provisioning, which is a nightmarish thing in the world of storage, "cuddly" for customers. Products from the bigger vendors, Taneja said, might take as much as two days to provision volumes.

"Storage admins are such harried animals," he said. "If you're a startup that brought in a system that cut the admin's provisioning time into one-tenth what it was, you'll get serious consideration."

Analysts, however, can be fickle. What looks good one week could be the result of a productive meeting of the minds between analyst and product development heads.

It's the users of the technologies, the guys in the data trenches, whose voices may carry the most weight.

Next page: Customers back the little guy