Is renting storage right for your business? Here's a look at the benefits and potential drawbacks.
The cloud has caused IT to rethink many of the ways business is done. Enterprises are shifting workloads out to the cloud, with a whole variety of structures, such as PaaS and IaaS, that divide the total IT shop into bought versus rented. Cloud models are now being translated into the data center domain, with innovative ways to pay for services replacing the old models of outright purchase of hardware and software licensing fees.
Storage isn’t immune to these changes. We’ve long held to a systems model with high markups over the cost of drives from the likes of WD and Seagate, but the advent of inexpensive solid-state drives has lined up with a move to COTS-based appliances to allow inexpensive alternatives. This is the basis of the cloud explosion, where the likes of Google, Azure and AWS buy drives and obtain their various boxes directly from Chinese ODMs.
Obviously, most IT shops want to participate in the bounty. The problem is a woeful lack of systems integration expertise and a lack of knowledge of the supply chain, coupled with a fear of support issues. While these issues are diminishing as COTS-based approaches take over the market, they open the opportunity for “expert integrators” to explore market niches.
One result has been the growth of Storage-as-a-Service (StaaS). Similar to cloud services, the idea is to rent storage space, rather than buy it.
StaaS has evolved to include a variety of mechanisms that deliver in-house storage on a budget for a SAN, or for a virtualized cluster or private cloud. These new forms are different from the shared space model of the public cloud, with the StaaS space occupied solely by the renter. Since hardware is on the user’s premises, the StaaS pool is connected behind the firewall to LANs or SANs and is as low latency as any other storage.
StaaS providers offer business arrangements that range from over-provisioning of purchased storage appliances to all-out rental. The over-provisioning model works by filling up available space in the storage array or appliance, but only charging for the space in use, usually working in increments of say 25% of the appliance. In that model, turning on a second 40TB space, for example, is already covered within the purchase agreement, with the increased payment only due when the next increment of storage is accessed.
At the other end of the spectrum, the StaaS space is fully rented. The storage provider installs the hardware and supports both hardware and their software, replacing any failed gear as needed. This model allows a lot of flexibility to both customers and providers. The customer has the freedom to change the storage configuration quickly and can take advantage of the provider's expertise in buying and configuring systems
Zadara Storage, the first provider of the fully rented model, gave me a typical real-world example of this flexibility. A customer was comfortable with SAS enterprise drives and began renting with the vendor. Late, more storage was needed and Zadara convinced the customer instead to add SATA drives with a front-end flash cache. This proved both faster and cheaper; the result was a risk-free transition to a more modern configuration with better performance and almost half the monthly rental.
Zadara also benefits in such a deal, since the cost of support and its cost of drive acquisition also drops considerably. This type of renting fits into sandboxing efforts, too, since organizations can try a variety of configurations over time without the exposure to full acquisition costs. The most obvious value is that performance upgrades are effectively guaranteed for the installation, so that it can keep up with the fast evolution we see in storage today.
It’s worth noting that Zadara also offers cloud-based storage as well as the ability to co-locate the StaaS storage pool within a carrier’s data center to take advantage of fast-fiber communications in a hybrid cloud setup.
A number of storage-on-demand companies are competing with AWS and the mega cloud providers by offering single-tenant cloud storage. Software companies such as Caringo offer a cloud version similar to Zadara’s cloud offerings. Scality, which provides object storage, has partnered with Tiscali to offer cloud-based services in Europe. Since all of these companies run their code on COTS servers, it’s conceivable that we’ll see an extension to on-premises StaaS to compete with Zadara directly.
The over-provisioned model, which really is pay-as-you-go, typically just provides for capacity expansion. It’s certainly beneficial, insofar as the extra capacity can defer repairs of bad areas in the media, such as a failed drive or flash module while giving the customer instant recovery of lost space. It also allows expansion on demand, which can be very handy at 3 o’clock on a Saturday morning!
On the downside, you eventually pay for that extra storage, and it’s a good bet that the price is attractive enough to keep you locked in to the provider. Still, payment is deferred and that always helps with tight budgets.
The pay-as-you-go model also removes the ability to change configurations easily and opt for a different tiering scheme, as an example. Companies like Nimble, Violin and Tegile have pay-as-you-go options, but these are limited to the all-flash arrays they sell, rather than the whole storage pool.
NetApp also offers a pay-as-you-go system. This covers most of their product line, and has the benefit of fixing the price of increments in the initial contract. This speeds up any expansion needed, but bear in mind that the cost of storage is entering a period of intense downward pressures, which a multi-year contract is not likely to reflect. EMC, IBM and HDS also offer pay-as-you-go options.