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Can Integrated Storage Systems Survive?

In recent entries we have discussed server storage virtualization options that allow storage managers to select almost any storage system and be able to provide features and management of those systems through the virtualization software. Despite this, integrated systems still continue to thrive. But the storage hypervisor concept may be a real threat. How can integrated storage systems survive if much of their capability is going to be given away in the hypervisor?

Integrated storage systems are storage solutions where you get both the storage hardware and storage services (snapshots, thin provisioning, replication) from a single vendor. Their goal is to provide a turnkey solution that is easier to implement and support.

They are being challenged by software-based virtualization that is either done by an appliance or hypervisor, bringing storage services to almost any vendor's storage hardware. It is the classic turnkey vs. build battle. but the hypervisor may make the build concept easier and may mean that integrated storage needs to up its offerings to compete.

Innovate Through Software

One way that integrated storage systems can continue to maintain their dominance is to continue to innovate through their own storage software. In some cases, this means keeping pace with what standalone or hypervisor-based storage solutions can do. For example, several storage vendors now have the capability to move volumes between different storage systems like hypervisors can. This brings live volume migration to the non-virtualized environment and to those hypervisors that can't perform live storage migrations.

In other cases, software innovation means doing what the storage virtualization solutions cannot--like thin reclamation instead of just thin provisioning, automated tiering for block-level data movement between storage types instead of whole volumes, or more robust snapshot and cloning capabilities.

Innovation may go so far as adding a feature that a storage virtualization tool simply does not have and may never have, like primary storage deduplication. As we discussed in our recent article "Which Primary Storage Optimization Strategy is Best?" deduplication could be a key differentiator especially in virtualized environments.

Innovate Through Hardware

Another area that storage systems vendors can innovate is in the storage hardware itself by using custom-designed ASICs or FPGA's that improve on performance. This breaks with the conventional wisdom of using "off the shelf" hardware, but it is an area that makes sense for storage vendors to invest in to stop the encroachment of software-only solutions. If you are a hardware vendor, you might as well leverage hardware to improve performance of such features like thin provisioning, automated tiering, and snapshots.

Compliment The Storage Hypervisor

As we discussed in our earlier entry "The Storage Hypervisor," the storage service capabilities of the virtualization vendors are improving dramatically and their shortcomings can be overcome by third-party software add-ons. As a result, the final area that we think that storage hardware vendors should focus on is creating great hardware. Too many vendors are counting on software ingenuity to differentiate their systems and are using off-the-shelf components for the hardware part of their solutions. That is a reasonable strategy, but it means constantly racing to stay ahead of what the storage hypervisor and standalone storage virtualization software vendors can provide. Eventually, many users may decide that the capabilities of the software virtualization stack may be all they need.

As we discuss in our article "The Requirements for Building Reliable Storage Systems," vendors should look to building reliable hardware that is cost effective and space efficient. This allows them to be a compliment, not a competitor, to the feature sets that are being added to the hypervisor. We think this gives storage vendors that invest in their own hardware innovations a key advantage as the storage virtualization market takes hold.

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