The SOCs advantage

Small and midsize businesses represent a fast growing marketplace for storage vendors. When software vendors that are used to selling into the enterprise or to mid-tier companies look "down market," their challenge frequently involves taking an existing product and reducing the functionality within it to something that is saleable to smaller companies.

A typical development scenario might have one engineering group turning off modules of code while another group simplifies the user interface. An alternative scenario has the vendor acquiring some smaller company that has a product to address the SMB space, and then rebranding the SMB product and selling it as a separate product line.

Deactivating large bodies of code and then making sure the rest of the product works is by no means a trivial task, but it is typically much easier to do than starting up an SMB development project from scratch, and offers the added (and hugely important) benefit of not having to maintain multiple code bases. A product might have only 30% of its code functioning, but in these days of large disk drives that is not much of a price to pay and probably wouldn't deter many buyers at all.

In many respects, it is often a greater challenge for hardware vendors to move down market.

Price is probably the most frequent determiner of what gets purchased by SMBs, which means that all vendors aiming at SMB markets must drive their products toward acceptable price points. Obviously, this requires them to squeeze as much cost out of the process as is possible in order to support low prices while still providing themselves with adequate margins.

Some hardware vendors acquire a line of storage products from another company, OEM-ing them under their own name. This approach gives away margin points to the supplier, but of course saves what might be a huge amount of development expense. Others learn to develop their products internally, but build in cost-reducing technology along the way.

The system-on-a-chip (SOC) is such a technology.

SOCs integrate many components on a single chip. When I wrote about SOCs six months ago, I mentioned the cost-reduction opportunities that would become available to vendors when real estate and power requirements were curtailed due to using these smaller components in place of boards stuffed with multiple processors and protocol ASICs.

Some SOCs can offer additional advantages however. For example, the SteelVine technology from Sunnyvale, Calif.'s Silicon Image includes tool kits that make it easy for OEMs to access a range of high-availability features that already reside within the chip. Using tool kits such as this to turn on built-in software that provides hot-plugability or disk rebuilding capability means a vendor won't have to invest in developing its own intellectual property in this area, which of course offers additional potential for wringing more cost out of the R&D process.

SOCs aimed at the low end of the market may offer another cost advantage: if they can be cost-effective for use with consumer products as well as for computer storage systems, additional and perhaps significant cost advantages may accrue as the SOC builders begin to benefit from efficiencies of scale.

Beyond cost savings, we see an additional potential advantage - SOC builders may come to provide so much on-board capability in their products that vendors may find they can offer enterprise-level capabilities while still hitting their targeted price points. Whether this will happen, and whether or not the vendors will then pass the savings downstream to their customers is something we will have to wait to see.

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