The data storage industry is abuzz about the latest innovations, such as software-defined storage, MRAM flash, all the variations of cloud storage, and the monster called big data. But enterprise managers of storage systems are still learning what this technology actually means for them as they try to cut through vendor hype.
The Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) made an effort to help storage users make sense of all these innovations by hosting its first ever Data Storage Innovation Conference this week in Santa Clara, Calif. The conference featured several tutorials on such subjects as data protection in the cloud, tiered storage systems, and the open-source Hadoop framework for managing big data sets.
"We're in another wave of transformation at the physical-device level with solid state storage," Wayne Adams, chairman emeritus of the SNIA board and a conference organizer, said in an interview.
Several storage vendors were among the presenters, but the tone of the conference was designed to be decidedly vendor neutral, Adams said. "You're not dependent upon the vendor by itself to provide you that baseline education, which can be biased around their brand."
Greg Schulz, founder of the advisory and consulting firm StorageIO and a conference keynoter, said the disconnect between what vendors want to sell and what enterprises plan to buy boils down to the difference between industry adoption and industry deployment.
Industry adoption refers to the development of new technology to improve the performance, capability, scalability, and security of data storage, Schulz said. For instance, NAND flash storage has been an industry standard for more than 20 years, but vendors are touting new variations of it, such as resistive random access memory (ReRAM) and magnetoresistive random access memory (MRAM), as successors to NAND.
"There's talk about NAND flash being dead," he said. "It's just dead from the standpoint of those who developed it and want to develop the replacement."
That's where Schulz draws the distinction between industry adoption and industry deployment. While industry adoption refers to how developers create and sell new technology, industry deployment is about what enterprises actually buy today, he said. Even though NAND has been around for many years, there are still some enterprises where it's used in only 5% of their environments.
And when it comes to spending on new technology, storage administrators face the same budget limitations that other IT departments face: how to make the case to CFOs.
Calculating the return on investment (ROI) of a particular purchase is a well-understood business practice, but Schulz talked of a new kind of ROI, the return on innovation. For example, the solid-state memory to a laptop he uses enables him to save large documents in a fraction of the time the task would take without it. The time saved adds up, creating opportunities for him to be productive in new ways.
The return on innovation is even more apparent on the scale of a large enterprise like the credit card issuer Discover Financial Services, said Marty Stogsdill, database architecture consultant for Discover, who presented a case study at the conference.
Discover had adopted an enterprise standard storage platform that would be provisioned to any business unit within the company that wanted storage.
With equipment from EMC and IBM, Discover created a Tier 1 storage area network (SAN) and a Tier 2 network-attached storage (NAS) system, Stogsdill said. However, Discover later replaced some of the platform with a custom-built database system based on Oracle Exadata technology and a custom-built data warehousing capability from Teradata, which also includes its own backup and recovery capability.
The Discover case study speaks to a point made often by participants in the conference: There are industry standard configurations for storage, but many companies also have to look at custom-built components to address their specific needs or to gain an edge over competitors in the same space.
One of the returns on innovation that Discover gained with its custom-designed storage was a new service to notify cardholders via a mobile device when a purchase had been approved. The service also notifies them when Discover accidentally charges an incorrect amount or needs to warn the customer about possibly fraudulent use of their card. This service, an innovation made possible by the new investment in network storage, reassures customers and builds loyalty, Stogsdill said.
"For the application teams, everything is real-time or near real-time," he said. "The data is getting closer to the end user on a mobile device."