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For resellers, Web-based server configurators are old hat.

Storage configurators, however, mark a newer area of activity. Manufacturers and distributors are both rolling out these storage tools on the Web. Configurators are intended to help resellers sort through storage options, speed up the design phase and determine whether a solution will work in actual practice.

The configurators arrive at a time when even enterprise storage products target a broader market. Vendors such as EMC Corp. now pursue the SMB (small and medium-sized business) market with arrays built around Serial ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment) technology. Those vendors have enlisted the channel to get their wares in the hands of more customers. The vendor and distributor configurators are an attempt to facilitate a wider technology rollout.

“This is really part of the channel process,” says Kevin Schoonover, director of engineering for Arrow Enterprise Storage Solutions. As the storage reach broadens, he notes, “you need to streamline the process, or it won’t scale.”

Storage providers can’t employ armies of people to handle configuration, so the reasoning goes. A Web-based tool, however, makes configuration a largely self-service process. Vendors need “a robust, accurate online tool” in order to grow, Schoonover said. Resellers, for their part, “need to have a quick response to end customers.”

Web configurators represent a step in both directions.

Arrow works with EMC, Network Appliance Inc. and Hitachi Data Systems, and all three, Schoonover said, are moving on Web-based configurators. EMC’s Channel Express is the farthest along, having debuted last year. Hitachi now offers a configurator, and NetApp has one in the works, he said.

Among distributors, Avnet Inc.‘s Avnet Applied Computing Solutions division offers its FastBuild Storage Online Configurator. In October, the company expanded this offering, with the addition of Sony and Xtore storage products. The company previously selected Seagate’s hard drive line for its configurator service.

Avnet’s configurator is geared toward custom white-box direct-attached storage, storage-area networks, network-attached storage and iSCSI. The service provides resellers with pre-validated storage subsystem configurations. The result is a time-to-market boost, according to Mike Gaeta, vice president of storage and displays at Avnet Applied Computing Solutions.

“It’s been a great tool for a reference design that gives you 90 percent of where you want to go,” he said.

Despite the automation, the configurators don’t entirely eliminate the human dimension. A reseller, for example, may ask Arrow engineers to demonstrate a product in the company’s storage lab prior to entering the configuration stage, Schoonover says. In addition, Arrows’ inside sales staff may run a configuration by an engineer to make sure it’s sound.

D&H Distributing, meanwhile, has administered training so its salespeople can help reseller customers through their storage decisions, notes Michael Schwab, vice president of purchasing at D&H.

The company provides flash drives, external hard drives and other storage products for partners selling into the SMB and small office/home office market. D&H’s storage revenue grew 64 percent since January 2004.

With the growth in storage—new classes of storage seem to emerge weekly—configuration tools should prove more than a passing fancy.