How to break out of the storage hardware zoo

In search of scalability

Expanding universe

That might be fine for smaller niche companies, but increasingly it is not how the wider world of data storage operates. As storage volumes rise relentlessly so does the cost of managing that storage, and the cost of management is compounded every time you add a new species of storage subsystem.

All of this is therefore driving growing interest in the idea of fully scalable storage which has uniform management tools and even re-usable components, and which can handle all of an enterprise's storage requirements.

The aim is to build a fully shared and converged storage estate that a business can use – and more importantly manage – more efficiently and effectively.

"You need to have all the tools in your toolbox now," says Kevin Brown, CEO of Ethernet-based storage developer Coraid.

"In the past everything ran in different silos: file storage, video servers, backup servers, archiving and so on. The vendors wanted to sell you five or six arrays, all running on different wires with different software."

He says this is driving the development of enhanced storage subsystems, equipped with Flash memory caching for higher performance but also flexible enough to provide the right storage characteristics for each job.

Sometimes that means high performance, sometimes it is low cost and high capacity, and at other times it is something in between – the key is that it is all from a single box with a single point of management.

Made to measure

“So you use best practices and allow the customer to tailor storage profiles for various applications,” Brown says.

“For example, synchronous applications such as financial services versus asynchronous applications such as video surveillance.”

He adds that even with converged storage hardware, storage virtualisation is pretty much essential.

"The compute world used to look siloed, so its cost of management was very high. Virtualisation has been great for compute, but has actually made things worse for storage," he says.

“It's an exponentially harder management problem and we have to have a much more virtualised storage environment to match it."

An IDC survey of IT decision makers, influencers and storage administrators found "significant interest in converged infrastructure, primarily driven by the possible savings on management time, but also as a way to reduce capital investment in IT”.

It adds: “[A]bout four in ten claimed interest in converged solutions if it helped in lowering IT costs by making management easier and more efficient. The importance of improving storage cost structure scores highly across the board, regardless of company size, while ease of management is even more critical for smaller companies as they usually don't have a dedicated storage specialist, but rather a small team of IT generalists.”

Converting that general interest in converged solutions into genuine sales and customer adoption is a different story, of course. For a start, storage developers wanting to reduce that number of storage management points face a big technical challenge.

Same difference

Instead of developing specialist subsystems, they must try to converge as many usage cases as possible onto a single architecture, which means they risk being a Jack of all trades.

And for buyers, there needs to be visible financial benefit, warns Bob Plumridge, chairman of the storage industry association, SNIA Europe.

"Consolidating to fewer boxes is one way to go, especially as the differences between hardware platforms are probably narrower now than they have ever been," he says.

"But migrating data is expensive and it carries risks, so you need to see real cost benefits from it. You need a good business case."

In addition, there are alternative ways to reduce the management load, or at least the number of points of management. Third-party management tools can help you manage a broad storage estate, for example, although you may still need to switch to the native toolsets for advanced operations. Other potential solutions are virtualisation and outsourcing.

"The practical reality for most reasonably sized organisations is that they don't buy all their storage from one vendor, and probably won't do so for a good few years to come," says Plumridge.

"For some it's due to mergers and acquisitions, others want multiple suppliers to negotiate better deals. But yes, that can leave a management headache."

Remote control

He adds that SNIA's standard for interoperable storage management, called SMI-S, "is still being enhanced and developed, and has been reasonably successful at standardising and dealing with the basic functions”.

He acknowledges, though, that standards tend to lag behind vendors' product development, so they often provide good coverage only at the lowest common denominator level.

"Another way to address the issue is to virtualise the storage, whether through a virtualisation engine – such as EMC VPlex, Hitachi's VSP or IBM SVC – or something like DataCore, then you manage the virtual layer," he says.

"And then we are finally starting to see the outsourcing of storage management infrastructures, where the customer has the storage arrays on-premise but a vendor or specialist remotely manages them."

The advantage here is that third-party storage specialists can afford the specific technology skills to manage all those different storage platforms, of course. ®

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