Monday, September 05, 2011
The Cloud Opportunity for Storage
Strategic analysis suggests that in the maturing hard drive manufacturing business, there is a significant and strategically critical opportunity for hard drive manufacturers to integrate forward into services for both the consumer and business markets while simultaneously offering outsourced storage management and service for businesses offering cloud storage.
A major advantage of offering a cloud based back up service to consumers is the annuity-like nature of the revenue stream. And because hard drives can be bundled with an optional or prepaid service offering, sales costs of associated back-up services are likely to be lower. A $100 hard drive with hard won profitability can be converted to an upfront purchase plus an annual service revenue that could run in the $10-40 range. Alternative revenue models might include an annual service based pricing model with an on-site hard drive as part of the service offering, in other words charge for service and give away a hard drive.
Incremental revenues from hard drive restoration represent an additional opportunity.
One thing is obvious about storage. Most consumers can’t tell the difference between storage offerings. In other words, it’s a classic commodity business where the most effective producer will win.
But as industries mature, companies need to reexamine their value proposition and see whether the business model has or could change. What are the adjacent businesses that represent a low risk opportunity to add revenues, but more importantly are sufficiently complementary to create a differentiated advantage.
With consolidation having already occurred in the hard drive business and two dominant players remaining, Western Digital and Seagate, how might the future evolve?
One alternative would be to accept the carving up of the market. Competition between WDC and Seagate would be comparable to the classic end game in many markets where two dominant players squeeze out other smaller competitors. Coke and Pepsi come to mind. Apple IOS and Google Android. Windows and LINUX.
But there are alternative evolutionary models that could emerge. One traditional weakness of Silicon Valley companies is that they tend to be product oriented. They often are uncomfortable with services and solutions. But as products become more mainstream, businesses often wish to outsource; consumers on average become less knowledgeable than the initial adopters. Another driving issue is that as markets become more competitive, vertical integration often presents advantages. For example, in the highly competitive computer business, the current success story, Apple, has vertically integrated to create an ecosystem that includes content ownership (Steve Jobs’ ownership position in Disney as a result of the sale of Pixar), on line and physical retailing, devices (Macs, iPads, iPhones, iPods) and services (MobileMe, cloud services). This approach is a far cry from the traditional horizontal model where the PC industry consisted of horizontal competitors (Intel in processors, Microsoft in operating systems, Microsoft in productivity software, WDC and Seagate in hard drives, Sandisk and Samsung in flash memory).
One way of looking at the problem is a task oriented approach. A hard drive vendor is not selling hard drives, rather it is selling a solution to a particular problem.
For example, most computer users have been faced with the problem of their system becoming unreliable and needing to restore their system to the previous successful state. While Windows provides the ability to roll back the operating system to a previous version, the comprehensiveness of the roll back is less than having a snapshot of the full hard drive so that it can be restored. This restoration is no trivial problem particularly for heavy users of PCs who many have dozens of pieces of software to reinstall. Reinstalling software on a machine can take several days, a costly exercise for an individual and even more costly for organizations with multiple employees unless they have set up facilities for automating backup and restoration.
A second example is music. An avid music collector may have 20,000 pieces of music. Replacement might well cost $20,000. And while additional hard drives are inexpensive, back up tends to be unreliable and recent material gets missed. Mindless and consistently reliable back up has value to protect the value of the investment.
A third example is memorabilia. Digital photos can easily be lost with a high emotional cost to an individual.
A fourth example is record keeping. Even individuals today often find their financial records stored on unreliably backed up computers.
Clearly, cloud storage is an area that is being targeted by many companies. Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Adobe, just to name a few of the more visible companies are offering free or relatively low cost storage. The intent in most cases is lock-in of the customer relationship as part of an overarching product or in some cases services and advertising strategy.
It’s easy to predict that price pressures in this market will be extreme, leading to efforts by the cloud storage offerors to reduce their costs. But as in all areas of IT, it is the total cost of ownership (TCO) that matters. One way of reducing their TCO will be to outsource storage to the low cost producer. And the most capable manufacturer of hard drives is likely to be well positioned to vertically integrate and offer outsourced storage to these large players. A secondary advantage of vertical integration for a manufacturer is the resulting increased production volume.
If a hard drive manufacturer integrates forward into services, it will lower its manufacturing costs. As the two dominant vendors in hard drive manufacturing operate with low margins, it takes a significant effort to increase the volume and thereby improve or maintain margins. Vertical integration represents a significant opportunity with likely first mover advantages.
The outsourced storage option can be structured in several ways. For large cloud operators, the outsourcing might involve management of in-house storage. For other businesses and consumers, a more traditional cloud storage services model would work. There would also be opportunities for premium storage with additional security attached.
Hard drive manufacturers are highly specialized organizations with value chains that normally ignore service opportunities. Adding the capabilities needed for forward vertical integration requires new focus, new skills and new management. But accepting the opportunity, understanding that services will drive additional volume means that these skills need to be added.
The first to adopt this strategy will quickly gain additional volume. Additional volume lowers costs and makes the forward vertical integration more profitable or enables faster acquisition of downstream customers. It is, as is normal in learning curve businesses, a competitive advantage goes to those who move quickly. What is perhaps less obvious is that the slower the rate of cost improvement, the more necessary it is to seek innovative ways to increase the cost advantage.
At first thought, pursuing vertical integration might seem to run the risk of alienating large buyers who are already offering cloud services. But if the storage offering is positioned as being available to cloud services and lowering their costs in addition to being available as a consumer service, the cost advantage should be compelling. Owning and managing the storage at a company site also offers a way of capturing hardware volume and minimizing communications costs.
The company that is probably the largest risk is Google. Their use of a proprietary file system and in-house assembly of servers means that they are likely to be most resistant to outsourcing management of storage.