At some point this year you are bound to hear the claim that 2014 is the "year of software-defined storage" (SDS) and that storage hardware companies are dead. Certainly I expect 2014 to be a significant year for SDS, and I am a fan of the concept, but I don't think we should be ready to pronounce storage hardware dead. Nevertheless, the potential success of SDS creates an interesting question: How should storage system designers respond to the growing threat of SDS?
Build great hardware
Storage hardware's primary response to SDS should be to build great storage hardware. Even if all the services that a vendor typically provides are eventually replaced by SDS, customers will need cost-effective and reliable systems to store their information. There remain certain realities in storage that should provide opportunity for hardware designers.
First, storage system performance is more important than ever, and most storage vendors are using flash-based storage to meet the performance demands of the datacenter. The key is to design a storage system that can tap into the full performance potential of flash. This allows storage system designers to create a custom system designed to match the flash medium's zero-latency nature. That architecture might give them a significant differentiator when compared to other systems that take an off-the-shelf approach. It could also mean designing specific storage software like deduplication and compression not commonly found in today's software-defined offerings.
Build better software
As we point out frequently, all the various data services are not created equal, and there is certainly opportunity to deliver a better software data-services set than what is available from the software-defined vendors. For example, there are storage system vendors that provide thin provisioning technology that has little impact on performance and requires no pre-allocation of space. This advantage could be important enough that you decide to standardize on a platform for that specific capability. The same holds true for other data services like snapshots, replication, compression, and deduplication. If a hardware vendor can provide a better quality of data services it can overcome the "openness advantage" of a software-defined solution.
[Want to learn more about different types of SDS? See Software-Defined Storage: How To Pick The Right Flavor.]
Let software do the grunt work
Another approach would be the opposite: Let software do the grunt work and stop developing the data-services basics. With the abundance of compute power available at the server layer, maybe it's time to let basic storage services like volume management, provisioning, snapshots, and replication become commoditized in software. This would allow storage hardware to do the services that are more compute intensive like deduplication, compression, and automated tiering or caching.
Let users have a choice
Software-defined storage is not a panacea. Embracing SDS means taking more of a "build it yourself" approach to storage management, something that not all datacenter staff will have time for. Many will want or need a turnkey approach. Others may want to dabble in SDS -- but only after they have addressed the core storage needs of the business with a storage system. The logical approach for storage system vendors is to continue to provide integrated storage hardware, but open their platforms up to accept hardware or software from other vendors. In essence, they will become SDS vendors for their customers when the customers want them to.
George Crump is president and founder of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on storage and virtualization systems. He writes InformationWeek's storage blog and is a regular contributor to SearchStorage, eWeek, and other publications.
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