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December 2004
Protecting Your Assets
By Heather Head

     Jim Stikeleather and Thomas Schiffers have made it their business to find solutions. Right now, that means finding the best way to help their mid-sized and large business clients manage and store the enormous and increasing quantities of data they depend on.

     Financial institutions, universities, government agencies, and many other small and large businesses rely on an ever-changing, ever-growing stream of data. Where traditionally the data has been stored in individual servers and backed up for protection on a regular basis, Stikeleather and Schiffers’ company, SANDirect, provides a time and money-saving solution that in recent years has become the norm.

     By combining high-capacity storage devices with a Storage Area Network (SAN), companies can make all their data available to all of their servers, free up network capacity for business applications, and store enormous amounts of data much more efficiently and reliably than by the old method.

     Although the SAN is mainstream for larger businesses today, when Stikeleather and Schiffers entered the business in 2001 it was only beginning to take off. The two have always had an eye for the future and predicted that the business demand for data storage would increase astronomically in coming years. Additionally, the market was newly opening to resellers, there was little competition, and the profit margins were respectable.

     In fact, the business need for data storage has increased so dramatically that so far in 2004 SANDirect has doubled its business and expects to do the same in 2005. Stikeleather attributes the skyrocketing demand for data storage to a number of factors. First is simply the massive amount of data a company produces, a number that grows as the company grows and also as new regulations and current events dictate.

     For instance, companies are now required by law to maintain records of all documents for a minimum of seven years. And e-mail is now considered a document. As Schiffers illustrates, that alone translates to limitless quantities of data to be stored: “If you’ve got ten thousand employees and you send one e-mail to all of them, you now have ten thousand documents that must be stored individually.”

     In addition, the 2001 terrorist attacks and heightened security concerns have led many companies to place a higher value on data security – meaning they need a safe place to store their data, and it has to be convenient and manageable.

     Meanwhile, the SAN industry is beginning to release products that allow even smaller businesses to take advantage of the efficiencies of a SAN. The typical network storage device is the size of a large cabinet, packed with drives, twinkling with lights, and bristling with cables and connectors. Oh, and slapped with a price tag manageable only to the very large business!

     Recently, however, many manufacturers have come out with versions of such a product that are barely larger than (and similar in appearance to) a standard desktop CPU, and for which the price tag is within reach of the mid-sized business. The new units are less powerful and versatile than their larger counterparts, but they provide plenty of functionality for most businesses, and at a fraction of the cost. 

     So Stikeleather and Schiffers are riding both waves – the wave of large businesses ever expanding their data storage needs and the new wave of smaller businesses meeting their needs with the new SAN units.

 

The SANford Empire

     Although SANDirect has existed in its present incarnation only two and a half years, Stikeleather and Schiffers have been in business together since 1994. At that time they became interested in large quantities of used IT equipment that was being bought and sold at rock bottom prices.

     With technology moving forward and changing at the speed of light, companies are constantly upgrading. Schiffers and Stikeleather saw that many companies were looking for someone to clear out their old equipment for them, while other companies, especially overseas concerns, were looking to buy used equipment.

     So, as Terri Grauer (more on her later) quips, they became “a high-tech Sanford and Son,” buying used IT equipment by the truckload and shipping it all over the world. They rented a 30,000-square-foot space on South Tryon (“a huge old dirty dusty warehouse,” says Stikeleather) and moved several tractor-trailer loads of computer paraphernalia each week.

     As they progressed in the business, they became interested in SANs and began to research and pursue the idea of becoming a reseller. Schiffers recalls observing in regard to a single SAN that “there’s more value in this one little box than in that whole tractor-trailer” of used computer equipment.

     Convinced of the growing demand for storage solutions, Schiffers and Stikeleather did their homework and decided to become resellers of EMC (a SAN manufacturer) SANs, along with the accompanying equipment and software. They became one the first EMC resellers in this area and remain one of only a few companies that specialize in data storage solutions.

     They now work out of a 9,000-square-foot finished air-conditioned office space selling equipment from several manufacturers, and the value they add is their commitment to work out solutions based on the client’s needs. “We always start from the core,” says Schiffers. “What is it that you’re trying to do, what is it that you’re trying to achieve, and we build out from there.”

 

True Grit

     Although Schiffers and Stikeleather were right in predicting the demand for their product, their new venture debuted in the very unfortunate aftermath of 9-11. As a result, the company’s greatest challenge, they say, has been the faltering economy.

     Another challenge is the pre-purchase sticker shock for potential clients. The technology has been on the market only a few years, and many companies looking to invest in it underestimate the initial cost. They may, for instance, budget for the cost of the SAN, but not for the critical software, accompanying hardware, maintenance, installation and other indirect costs.

     As a result, says Schiffers, SANDirect sometimes has to help clients prioritize and install less than they had hoped for but enough to get them started. “We at least get them started with production or mission-critical applications,” says Schiffers, “and then build upon that foundation.”

     “Once established,” says Stikeleather, “the SAN is easily managed and it can grow very easily.” And once established, SANDirect’s relationship with that customer also can grow very easily. The result: quick and steady growth for SANDirect; proof that SANDirect’s owners have the grit necessary to make it despite the challenges.

 

Life, the Universe, and Everything

     The search for solutions, both for their own business and for their clients, and the resulting evolution, is not over. The next big thing for SANDirect is a brand new, groundbreaking product that they helped develop and for which they are master resellers. This is the solution that will reveal the truth (but not about life or the universe – sorry!).

     This new solution, publicly announced in October, has drawn enormous interest and excitement from clients and others. In fact, it is the reason Terri Grauer is with the company. “I came from a large corporation,” says Grauer, likening her former employer to companies such as IBM and HP. “So they brought me in here and had me take a look at this product, and I said ‘… Okay’” to leaving her secure corporate job and taking on the business development for this new technology.

     Schiffers says that the biggest barrier to selling this product is disbelief from potential clients who think it’s too good to be true. “People walk away from the demos saying, ‘How can this be real?’”

     While SANDirect employees and others in the business of storage infrastructure might “get it” right away with jaw-dropping amazement, for most of us, understanding the importance of the new technology requires a little background.

     Recently, a high level government agency with whom SANDirect was scheduled to meet had to postpone the discussion because their data systems were down. Someone had unplugged one piece of equipment and plugged it in somewhere else. It took them five days to find the problem and fix it.

     Large entities like the government agency in question, with hundreds of servers and networks spanning the nation or the globe, have a difficult time keeping track of all their data and equipment – what is out there, what it is doing, and where there are problems. Software developed to monitor one set of equipment may not be compatible with software developed to monitor others, and getting reliable information is complicated.

     A company may hire dozens of people to monitor the equipment, troubleshoot, interface with end users, and fix problems – and still data and equipment and problems slip through the cracks and cause loss of time, loss of revenue, loss of productivity.

     This new solution completely changes all that. “It is basically an appliance” says Grauer. “EM7 comes installed on a server. You plug it in, it goes out and discovers everything in the IT environment, and in about two hours you have comprehensive and useful data.”

     The appliance is called EM7 and is produced by a company called Science Logic. It is the first iteration in what its creators call Relational Infrastructure Management, or RIM. As defined by Science Logic, “RIM is a process of integrating disparate infrastructure and application management systems with business processes, via a shared interface and common data repository. RIM products simplify compliance and corporate governance activities, improve data consistency, and increase user efficiency.”

     In a nutshell, RIM means that no matter how many servers you have, no matter how big your SAN, and no matter how complicated your technology infrastructure, if someone unplugs a device and plugs it back in the wrong place, you will be notified and can rectify the problem almost instantly. It also means you can know anything you need to know about your infrastructure or the status of your data the moment it occurs to you to ask. And it means you can do it without the dozens of dedicated employees usually assigned this task.

     David Link, Richard Chart, and Christopher Cordray are the humble names behind the revolutionary product. They created the product from the ground up as an answer to the problem they experienced firsthand in their work for some of the leading technology companies. Where existing solutions were all partial, fragmented, and manufacturer-specific, these three visionaries built a solution that would be comprehensive, complete, and able to work seamlessly with all hardware and software to create a completely integrated and friendly experience for users and administrators alike.

     Stikeleather and Schiffers believe RIM will become a mainstream concept, and that EM7 will be the industry standard.

     The truth is, no one really knows what will happen in technology in the future. But with EM7, you can know what is happening in your technology infrastructure right now. The new RIM technology can be, in Grauer’s words, your “one source for the truth” about everything in your network.
Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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