IBM Keeps a Sharp Edge with Smarter Storage

IBM rolls out its Smarter Storage concept, which joins Smarter Computing, SmartCloud and Smarter Analytics. Discover its three key principles and more about Smarter Storage.

David Hill

June 25, 2012

5 Min Read
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IBM recently held its inaugural storage-dedicated event, IBM Edge2012, in Orlando, Fla. Although breakout sessions focused on specific products and the words cloud and big data were sprinkled liberally about, IBM's emphasis was on its concept of Smarter Storage, which it views as a new approach, focusing on three key principles:

  • Efficient by design: From a storage perspective, efficient means better utilization of storage assets. Technologies used to accomplish this include real-time compression of primary storage, thin provisioning capabilities and an intuitive UI designed to reduce operating complexity and increase storage administrator productivity/efficiency. The business value of "efficient by design" translates into better use of existing storage and the ability to defer new expenditures.

  • Self-optimizing: This concept concerns algorithmic and heuristic policy-based software decision-making for the placement of data, to balance the need for performance for latency-sensitive data with the need to store infrequently accessed data on less performance-capable but more cost-effective storage media. This provides a value-add for performance-demanding data and cost efficiencies for non-latency-sensitive data. Self-optimization also results in the automation of performance-tuning management, which increases administrator productivity; automated storage tiering (IBM's version is called Easy Tier), including the use of flash memory devices, is the most familiar example of self-optimizing storage.

  • Cloud agile: Cloud implies the transformation of the IT infrastructure to a more efficient, flexible and/or agile form that emphasizes, from a user perspective, IT as a service; as the concept of cloud rapidly evolves, an enterprise must remain agile to take advantage of the different opportunities. Cloud agility for storage means an enterprise has to be aware and continuously look for ways to use storage to improve access to information. For example, IBM has available services for application-centric storage clouds and is also planning stand-alone storage clouds.

Next: Let's look at one technological illustration for each of the three principles.Efficiency by design: Real-Time Compression for Active Data

IBM announced Real-Time Compression that's built into both its Storwize V7000 and SAN Volume Controller for active primary production data. The company claims this could lead to up to 80% compression on active data, although some data can't be compressed, and the traditional accepted average reduction is assumed to be a 2-to-1 ratio. Still, even a 50% savings is significant. Moreover, there are associated side benefits, such as better use of cache and bandwidth.

Compression using the standard Lempel-Ziv (LV) algorithm (with variations) has been around for a long time, and IBM isn't unique in applying it to primary storage. However, just applying the algorithm isn't enough. IBM can also do it in real time without affecting performance, making this approach practical, and also has a number of patents surrounding the technology.

Real competitive differentiators are hard to find and hard to keep (as other companies have smart engineers, too). However, IBM has a real competitive edge here that it seems likely to exploit.

Self-Optimizing: Easy Tier

IBM has offered its Easy Tier solution for some time now to place and migrate data in a self-optimized manner on three tiers of primary storage: tier 0 solid-state devices, which is NAND flash memory; tier 1, which typically includes Fibre Channel or SAS hard disk drives; and tier 2, which is typically represented by SATA drives. The lower the tier number, the higher the performance and the higher the cost per gigabyte of storage. IBM plans to extend Easy Tier to a flash storage cache located in the server, claiming that moving hot files to server flash cache can increase performance by up to five times by overcoming SAN-based latencies.

This is all part of the IBM "flash is everywhere" strategy where optimization of performance is critical, and the ability to coordinate cache and primary storage tiers is essential for efficiency, cache integrity and consistency management. As a preview of coming attractions, IBM also plans to make Easy Tier application-aware. Via APIs, applications will be provided "hints" that are application-specific to improve performance through self-tuning. This would help to magnify the existing benefits of Easy Tier even further.

Cloud Agile: Storage in Compute Clouds and Storage Clouds

A couple of ways of distinguishing the use of storage in the cloud are:

  • As part of a "compute cloud" that combines both storage and applications

  • As a "storage cloud" in which storage is provided without links to the application

In a compute cloud solution, storage is combined with servers and networking as a single platform or cloud. Available now, IBM delivers BladeCenter Foundation for Cloud Flash optimized storage solutions, like Storwize V7000 with Easy Tier and XIV with Flash Cache that's integrated with VMware and other server hypervisors.

On the storage cloud side, IBM says standalone storage clouds will be available by year's end, based on both SONAS and Storwize V7000 Unified solutions.

Smarter Storage is an addition to the pantheon that already includes Smarter Computing, SmartCloud and Smarter Analytics. Whether this is simply IBM marketing rhetoric or has substance is especially important, since the majority of customers would probably have a hard time explaining even one of the smarter terms, let alone all of them.

Now, customers, vendors, press/media and analysts have an understanding that IT is going through a major transformation. The use of the word smarter is IBM's way of focusing on the need of the IT infrastructure to increase intelligence to manage change, which is fundamental to moving to IT-as-a-service. IBM is responsible for delivering the products and services that make Smarter Storage happen, but customers need to increase their understanding of the process as a whole rather than focusing on individual products. How well both the company and its customers respond to their respective challenges will determine the success of IBM's Smarter Storage.

Disclaimer: At the time of publication, IBM is a client of David Hill and the Mesabi Group.

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