What's the number-one item in your IT budget? Chances are that if it isn't already storage, it soon will be. A deluge of e-commerce and supply chain transactions plus increased use of memory-intensive video and audio files are driving an insatiable demand for hardware coffers to stow data in. US market researcher, Yankee Group, recently predicted that within two years storage spending would consume 60% of large corporate IT budgets compared with about 30% currently.
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On the crest of the wave is runaway market leader EMC, the Massachusetts behemoth that emerged from the pack to claim the mantle of 'the IBM of storage' - the supplier you would never get fired for buying from.
However, a host of upstarts pushing new storage models threaten to blindside EMC, creating a fascinating competitive landscape but a bewildering array of choices for CIOs.
Until recently storage was a commodity, a box of disk drives linked to a controlling server. However, explosive demand for storage capacity led US suppliers to think outside the box.
The first innovation - anticipated by EMC - was storage area networks (SANs), hooking up drives to networks for multiple servers to tap. Because every networked drive is available to the servers, this allows users, such as US retailer Sears Roebuck, to dispense with the expensive need to replace individual drives as soon as their storage capacity is exhausted. Under older 'server-attached storage', drives and servers are coupled in discrete pairings, meaning maxed-out drives must be replaced immediately if the processing power of the connected server is not to be lost.
Newer and cheaper still is network-attached storage (NAS), pioneered by Silicon Valley's Network Appliance, which deploys appliances integrating drives with a built-in server instead of separate drives and servers requiring special switches under SANs.
Then there is the emergence of storage service providers, led by Massachusetts' StorageNetworks, renting out storage space from data centres. US investment bank Merrill Lynch is a recent convert to such storage utilities
CIOs' buying decisions over the next few years could spell a dramatic shake-out in one of IT's most booming markets. EMC has earmarked $10bn for R&D over the next five years. This war chest is intended to prevent it going the way of former suburban Boston neighbours, Data General, Digital Equipment and Wang, whose vacated offices stand as tombstones to one-time industry giants that failed to anticipate CIOs' wants.