Channel Insider content and product recommendations are editorially independent. We may make money when you click on links to our partners. Learn More.

Ask IT professionals what storage virtualization means to them, and you’ll probably get five different answers. That may seem a dismal state of affairs when it comes to knowledge about storage virtualization. Much of that misunderstanding stems from the fact that there are few, if any, standards around the technology.

When it comes to the channel, however, those misinterpretations spell opportunity. What becomes clear is that IT professionals will need educated solution providers to navigate the whole storage virtualization market.

Looking at the big picture, virtual storage amounts to little more than assigning a “logical” layer to one or more physical storage devices. Storage virtualization, however, starts to get complex when one considers all the methods that can be used to create the logical abstraction of the physical data (storage). A plethora of vendors are playing in the virtual storage (or storage virtualization) market and each has its own way of building and deploying its proprietary technology. And therein lies the key to the whole storage virtualization market.

For solution providers, the path may be a little clearer once virtual storage solutions are broken down into the key components. For most VARs, opportunity can be associated with the sales of hardware (physical devices), software (virtualization and management applications) and the services associated with storage virtualization.

While understanding the individual elements may be easy for most VARs, the challenges start when it comes to selling solutions. Simply put, what VARs need to know is how and when to sell storage virtualization technologies. For example, if a potential customer is happy with its current physical storage arrangement, why would virtual storage even be considered?

First off, a good storage virtualization solution brings added reliability to data storage. That is a benefit that is delivered by much of the underlying technology needed to build the solution. In most cases, virtual storage solutions are built on SAN (storage area network) and NAS (network-attached storage) devices that feature integrated redundancy, such as RAID. What’s more, virtualization speeds the path to data continuity, and solution providers will find it much easier to set up mirrored storage environments, geographic diversity and rollback capabilities using storage virtualization.

Another sales argument is that storage virtualization brings enhanced capabilities to many businesses. Technologies such as virtual tape can speed backup and virtual DVD/CD capabilities, making it easier to share data. These benefits help define what storage virtualization is all about.

IBM goes on a storage stampede. Click here to read more.

Solution providers can also leverage the business continuity argument to sell storage virtualization. Here, the technology’s ability to replicate data, load balance and provide multiple paths to data proves to be a must-have if a business is serious about continuity.

The same argument applies to disaster recovery. Just as with PC and server virtualization, storage virtualization brings a commonality to the underlying hardware, and that means technology changes do not impact the storage environment. So, in turn, by virtualizing the associated storage hardware, it becomes easier to swap out hardware and rebuild data centers in the event of a disaster.

While there are many paths to storage virtualization, solution providers will need to choose which one to follow. Primarily, there are three distinct ways to build a virtualized storage solution: traditional (the hardware and software approach), appliance-based and hosted.

The most difficult method proves to be the traditional integration of hardware and software, but the difficulties often pale in comparison with the advantages, and traditional approaches can minimize the initial expenses needed to build the solution.

In most cases, existing storage hardware can be used as the basis for virtual storage. That keeps costs low, simplifies return on investment and allows solution providers to build a solution optimized for the customer’s environment. The downside is often punctuated by integration challenges, compatibility concerns and overall solution complexity.

In some cases, an appliance may be the best way to get started. Several vendors offer virtual storage appliances that bring virtualization technology directly into the network by simply plugging in the device. Vendors such as EMC, FalconStor, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others offer a range of appliances that incorporate virtual storage technology.

Most vendors lead with virtual tape as their entry-level virtual storage platform. Virtual tape solutions allow standard hard disks to emulate tape drives. The primary benefits of this are speed (both backup and restoration), easier management of tape catalogs (physical tapes are no longer needed) and the ability to leverage existing backup solutions. Storage management applications see the virtual tape drives as physical devices and, therefore, are naturally compatible with the new environment. That is a major advantage when a customer has a significant investment in backup software and disaster recovery applications.

Many vendors also treat their SAN and NAS hardware in much the same way: A virtualization capability is bundled with the product, allowing a virtual environment to be built on top of the storage hardware. One concern with this approach is cross-vendor compatibility; when mixing and matching products from various vendors, the included applications may not allow system managers to roll all the hardware into a single virtual environment.

An interesting twist to the whole virtual storage appliance market is to add another layer of virtualization. Some companies are now offering virtual versions of their virtual storage appliances. In other words, all the needed software and an operating system are bundled together and designed to run as a virtual session on a server using virtualization software, such as VMware’s. That twist allows solution providers to move away from proprietary hardware and fully tap virtualization technology.

While traditional methods and appliances offer pros and cons, there is still another way to bring virtual storage to your customers—offer it as a managed service. Several MSPs (managed services providers) are getting into the storage game; companies such as Mozy, Iron Mountain, Vembu and Asigra have been offering managed storage as a service to companies.

Interestingly, most of those companies’ efforts have focused on data backup. The key issue is that MSPs can offer remote storage to companies and that storage can take the form of a virtualized solution. On the plus side, hosted solutions usually have a low initial cost, can be budgeted out effectively and generate recurring revenues. The challenges with the managed services market include bandwidth limits, data privacy concerns and security.

With three clear paths to storage virtualization, most any VAR should have little trouble engaging customers and building solutions that address the customers’ problems and offer the ability to build profits from something as mundane as data storage.