So why do customers buy from whom they buy? Depending on who you ask the response can be different. Marketers will tell you it’s because of the effort the company puts into creating a trusted brand. Sales will tell you it’s all about relationships. Consultants will want to credit the effort placed in educating the customer on the uniqueness of the solution.

Most of my career was from the vendor side of the fence but I did spend a number of years on the user side. So allow me to share with you my own personal view gained from years of selling to customers in the region, as well as more recent discussions with large corporations in Asia about their decision-making criteria that eventually lead to a sale.

Obviously not every customer buys for the same reason but in many cases there are some key common considerations:

Buy everything from the server vendor

This is an easy and potentially safe solution. It may not be the most price-competitive on offer and it may not provide the best product for the job. The point here is you have throat to choke, one supplier accountable for everything.

Buy more of what is already installed

Often times we come to situations where we just need a little more juice, or additional disk space, or perhaps new employees mean additional licenses are needed. It is so much easier to expand on what is installed than to go out and buy something new. It has, potentially, has the same downside as the first point in that it maybe not the lowest cost and not necessarily the best product.

Buy on brand or company name

During the days of the mainframe era, many years ago, there used to be a saying that no-one ever got fired for buying from IBM. These days the same may apply to buying from EMC, the largest independent storage vendor. But this may not give you the best solution and price.

Support

For the larger vendors this generally is not an issue. It should be more of a consideration for a new vendor or small in the region or if you have a need to install in a remote location. Another issue to bear in mind is support in a heterogeneous environment, It can happen that when something goes wrong, vendors like to point to the other vendors components as the cause of the problem.

Buy on Price

Some enterprises know exactly what they want. They define the specifications of what they need and then buy the lowest cost solution that fits the requirements.

Buy because of feature

In a dynamic business environment, there will be occasions when you need to deploy a new feature that is recently introduced into the market and this is only available from one or maybe two vendors. A good example is flash memory for storage arrays.

Let me stress the point that decision-making is never simple. There will not be just one reason that will be considered but usually a combination.

Even within Asia there can be a different bias depending on the country or culture.

For instance, in China there is a focus on brand; name, image and reputation. In Japan quality and reliability are very important. Koreans look at feeds and speeds — what has the fastest throughput, the biggest cache, or the largest capacity. In India price is very high on the list of decision criteria.

I spoke to two large customers in Hong Kong and received two very different opinions. Michael Leung, Senior Vice President & Chief Information Officer for China Construction Bank (HK Branch) looks for “value” in any purchase. He believes in competition and does not like to be tied in to buy storage from the server vendor as in the case with the IBM AS/400’s CCB has installed, which has many benefits because of the closed architecture, but has also some drawbacks. Leung added that the decision making process takes into account features, functionality, reliability and support.

On the other side of the spectrum is Andrew Ling, the Director of IT and Supply Chain for the Bossini Group. He told me that his preference is to buy storage from the same vendor as the server. Ling believes that Bossini will get better discounts as well as fewer integration and support issues. The other important consideration is the vendor’s reputation, which includes support and their research and development.

Whatever you do and whenever you can, get at least two quotes. And make sure the vendors you are talking to know what you are doing. This way you will get a better deal.

There is one other factor that I have not mentioned yet although I first heard this more than 20 years ago from one of the best account managers I’ve ever worked with.

People buy from people they know and trust

From my experience as long as the vendor has a good-enough product and a good-enough price, the key differentiator is the customer relationship with the account manager, the company’s management and the support staff. To be honest for over 90% of user requirements most products from reputable vendors will do the job.

This is the same anywhere in the world, not just Asia.

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Three months ago I had an opportunity to meet an ex-SUN storage evangelist – Robert Nieboer – who spoke elonquently about the concept of Open Storage. According to Nieboer, Open Storage suggests that you buy standard, commodity products like controllers and hard disks, and install an “Open Source” operating system that includes storage resource management, and you get a storage subsystem that will perform pretty much everything that a similarly configured storage solution from IBM, EMC, HP, HDS, NetApp or Fujitsu, but at a fraction of the cost – 10% to be precise.

Certainly at 10% of the costs of a convention storage solution from mainstream storage vendors, you’d wonder why there is no mad rush to get into the open storage bandwagon.

I took the opportunity to broach the concept of open storage to three CIOs. The response were unanimous – “no, thank you!”. Why?

Michael Leung, CIO for China Construction Bank (Hong Kong branch), notes that banks are probably some of the most conservative businesses on the planet. Highly regulated, all activities are monitored and audited. Every piece of technology the bank is using has likely got the auditor’s seal of approval. Any changes to the type of infrastructure would warrant long meetings, supported with lengthy documentation, with auditors. Its ok to pay through the nose as long as CCB complies with set standards and regulations.

Like Leung, Raymond Ngai, Head of IT Infrastructure for the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), meeting government regulatory requirements is just as important as keeping data secure 24x7x365. The Jockey Club sites on 35TB of data housed across the main data center and the disaster recovery (DR) site. Like CCB, the Jockey Club likes to stay with old and reliable (I prefer to call it predictable).

One head of IT who bucked the perception was Thomas Lee, Computer Operations Manager at HACTL (Hongkong Air Cargo Terminal Ltd). Lee says HACTL is constantly on the lookout for IT solutions that would deliver significant ROI. Certainly if you can save 90% of your storage budget, that warrants a label of significant ROI. But you have to pay attention to the fact that HACTL’s business isn’t as highly regulated at CCB or HKJC.

Apart from SUN, none of the other major storage vendors in Asia (EMC, IBM, HP, NetApp and Dell) have an open storage story to tell. Why should they? Such a story could potentially cannibalize their “open but proprietary” storage offerings. SUN is not invulnerable either. IDC ranks SUN as 5th in terms of storage sales, with double-digit growth – like everyone else. Much of this growth is attributable to SUN’s storage business derived from OEM partnerships with Hitachi, LSI and Dothill.

Certainly SUN’s proposition that storage should not cost as much as it does today has it merits. The question that CIOs and business managers need to ask is ‘whether the technology is mature enough today to warrant taking the plunge.’

The likely answer is ‘no.’

It will probably take a few more years before open storage becomes a viable solution for mission critical applications. Like Linux and the open systems platform, early adoptors can take the opportunity to test the solution either on development platforms or applications that live on Tier 3 storage platforms.

Today the verdict is out – open storage is not ready for prime time. But like the probervial Gartner Hype Cycle, the technology will reach a point where it becomes mature enough to consider. Until then, stick with the tried and tested, albeit expensive and proprietary solutions available from everyone else.

For more on Open Storage, check out the following sites:
SUN Open Storage
OpenStore
DotHill Open Storage
SGI Open Storage