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What If Storage Hardware Mattered?

It seems like every week I speak to a storage hardware company that informs me that they are really a software company. What they typically mean by this is that they are trying to differentiate themselves by the software capabilities that they put on top of the storage hardware more so than the actual hardware itself. This means that the hardware is basic. The reality is we need great hardware manufacturers more than ever.
It seems like every week I speak to a storage hardware company that informs me that they are really a software company. What they typically mean by this is that they are trying to differentiate themselves by the software capabilities that they put on top of the storage hardware more so than the actual hardware itself. This means that the hardware is basic. The reality is we need great hardware manufacturers more than ever.One of the key reasons we need high quality hardware is that the storage software stack, the component of a storage system that does things like thin provisioning, snapshots and replication, is following the server virtualization trend and becoming more modular. Yes you can get your storage software with the array still today but you can also get it as a stand alone storage appliance, as a virtual appliance in the virtual infrastructure or with the application or file system itself.

The table stakes of data services; thin provisioning, snapshots and replication, are now robust enough that if these services are provided by the operating system or on a virtual appliance, it may be all that many data centers need. Advanced data services that take these types of features and either extend them or better integrate them with the hardware are available, but not everyone is convinced that they need these advancements. The ability to have the basic data services you need in software is very compelling. This separation of storage services from storage hardware is often called storage virtualization.

As we will discuss in our upcoming webinar "Storage Virtualization: Doubling The Value" the advantage of separating the storage software from the storage hardware is that it gives you the freedom to select the software you need for a particular environment and select the hardware that strikes the right balance of performance, reliability and price for your specific needs.

This capability to put the data services anywhere you need them increases the focus on hardware, not decrease it. Increasingly average hardware can't hide behind great software. The hardware vendors have to make sure that their hardware can meet all of those criteria that are important to you. Even systems manufacturers will not be able to take off the shelf components with average capabilities and pour software on top. You should be looking for both, great software and great hardware. Hardware matters more than ever.

For example data center floor space is an issue that needs to be addressed with software and hardware. While in software we can add capabilities like thin provisioning, cloning (writable snapshots), deduplication and compression to increase the logical capacity and efficiency of a storage system. What about designing the system so it can store more physical capacity per rack unit? This means designing systems so that issues like vibration and heat are handled correctly so that an array with densely packed drives won't be more susceptible to failure.

Another example is RAID rebuild times. Drives will fail and as capacities continue to increase. Each will cause rebuilds will take longer and longer. To address this hardware needs to help with RAID rebuild times by allocating dedicated processors or making sure there is sufficient storage CPU power to perform the RAID recalculations faster and by using cache memory to speed the write performance of these systems during a rebuild.

The big advantage of separating the storage software from the storage hardware is that we can judge each on their own. If you look at some of the major players out there the storage hardware they run on is vanilla. They are counting solely on the storage software to get your attention. The software may be that good but my advise is to take both into account. What can the software do for you and what can the hardware do for you? There may be times where an integrated approach is the best alternative and there may be times where getting your storage software from someone other than the hardware vendor makes sense. It may do more than save you money, it may give you better storage solution.

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George Crump is lead analyst of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. Find Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement here.

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