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Storage as a service trending in 2021

Questions for 2021: Can Dell reach the Apex? How green is HPE's GreenLake? Large vendors highlight storage as a service as a hot area, but mass acceptance could take years.

The largest storage vendors expect storage as a service to be a hot trend this year after teeing up the concept during 2020.

Dell Technologies' Project Apex, NetApp Keystone, HPE GreenLake and Pure Storage Pure as-a-Service are the most prominent initiatives entering 2021. GreenLake has been around for years, while Apex is in its early stages following its October 2020 launch.

The idea is to offer organizations the option to buy storage infrastructure the same way they buy public cloud services. Besides providing Opex pricing, it can also help alleviate the complexity of setting up and managing IT functions when done correctly.

The services program lets IT teams rent their infrastructure, pay through subscriptions or buy only what they need. Centralized portals are often included for procuring and managing the services, such as GreenLake Central or Dell's Cloud Console.

What's ahead for STaaS

Regardless of how much -- or how little -- storage as a service (STaaS) catches on in 2021, it is clearly where vendors see storage infrastructure heading in the long term. It already received a push in that direction from the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

"The biggest thing for us in 2020 was Project Apex -- our consumption model," said Sudhir Srinivasan, Dell storage CTO. "We've done that in the past in different flavors. But I think we'll see the shift from just pure commercial consumption, which means paying by the drip, to literally as a service, meaning operated by us and the customer doesn't want to deal with any of that. There's been a much more rapid shift [in 2021] to that, and it's going to accelerate [from 2020 to 2021]."

Sudhir Srinivasan, Dell storage CTOSudhir Srinivasan

Srinivasan said the as-as-service model will be in place for all Dell EMC primary and secondary storage in 2021. Like HPE with GreenLake, Dell expects to eventually offer all of its infrastructure services through Apex.

"People are starting to demand it, but it takes time for IT shops to adapt their operations to this," Srinivasan said. "We are seeing it in only a handful of big customers."

As Srinivasan said, the storage-as-a-service concept has been around in some form for years. One storage vendor, Zadara Storage, has built its business around STaaS, now known as Zadara Cloud Platform. Zadara has offered it since 2014, managing its virtual private storage arrays for customers and taking care of technology upgrades automatically.

Nelson Nahum, Zadara CEONelson Nahum

Zadara CEO Nelson Nahum laughed when asked if storage as a service is a hot trend for 2021.

"If you would have mentioned this to me in 2010, I would have told you it's the next big thing," he said. "We're happy they're all doing it now because, frankly, a big part of our challenge has been that people -- especially, on-premises people -- do not understand the value of as a service."

Nahum said it's not enough to just offer legacy storage with cloud pricing. The difference between the major storage vendors and Zadara, he said, is Zadara built its storage systems to run as a service, while others tweaked their business model for existing systems. He said Zadara will refresh any hardware whenever the customer wants with no charge, which means it can offer new technologies such as NVMe flash drives at the same service level as older drives.

"Part of the technology we built is software to centrally manage all our locations worldwide, over 300 locations worldwide and they're all managed by a single centralized console," he said. "It's all seamless. We can do anything; it's a cloud model. It's not, 'Let me give you some boxes.' On one side, the big vendors are evangelizing the service, but there's a huge difference from what we call 'as a service,' with our refresh capabilities and different workloads on demand, and them saying, 'Let me give you a box.'"

Zadara customer Pratum signed on four years ago to improve the security services company's scaling and performance needs, Pratum CTO Steve Healey said. Healey used the public cloud as the business model. He found AWS EC2 easy to scale on demand quickly and liked the subscription pricing, and he explored a storage vendor that could deliver the same model.

"We wanted to relieve our team of the time that it was taking, as well as the upfront costs involved with managing that on premises," Healey said.

Bigger companies more likely to tap into STaaS

Storage as a service will take a while to catch on, though. For now, it seems a better fit for larger companies, while smaller organizations don't benefit yet.

Clifton Dorsey, vice president at Warrell Corp., said he considered Dell's pre-Apex as-a-service program when buying Dell EMC VxRail hyper-convergence and PowerProtect backup in 2019. He said, ultimately, he didn't think the candy manufacturer would benefit financially.

Steve Healey, Pratum CTOSteve Healey

"I looked at it real quick just to get my budget numbers," Dorsey said. "At the time, it didn't make sense. If we become a bigger shop and have more data, more people and more locations, it may make sense for us. But, today, I don't feel we're big enough to take advantage."

Pratum's Healey said it is more than Zadara's technology that he finds valuable. Pratum also counts on Zadara's counsel and expertise to manage its storage efficiently.

"We actually can engage their team, engage their engineers and ask them questions like, 'Hey, what do you think is better, what would give us a better edge when it comes to improving performance?' Or ask specific questions on IOPS. We're leveraging their team's expertise and you typically don't get that."

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