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The Fall Of The Storage Tiers

Until a few years back, storage was a bit like Ancient Egypt. Nothing much had changed in a long time. The chief priests sat in their temple in Stamford and oversaw the rituals -- the storage world was nicely divided into categories, and tiers ruled. It’s not that way now!

Both drives and storage appliances are evolving at warp speed, making the prim Tier 0, 1, and 2 storage definitions largely irrelevant. Ultrafast Fibre Channel hard drives are history, and it looks as if the other expensive fast spinners are destined for the same fate. This leaves us with bulk hard drives as a definable tier.

Even here, there is fragmentation, with shingled drives operating best where data is kept perpetually, such as in object storage and archives. Where do hybrid hard drives fit? They are faster than any spinners, but not as fast as a pure SSD.

SSDs really confuse the story! We’ve gone from a single class of drive operating at the level of today’s consumer-grade drives to a world with a million+ IOPs drives and cards, enterprise-grade drives with 750K IOPS or bulk storage specs, and two or three classes of consumer drive. Each of these finds its own use cases, but there are considerable overlaps.

Stepping above the drive level adds even more complication. Deduplication and compression software turns small, fast drives into bulk drives, for instance. Enter the world of appliances, and we have all-flash and hybrid arrays plus unified storage systems, all vying for attention.

Add in the cloud with its variety of storage offerings, and it’s clear that old descriptions no longer fit the real working environment we face daily. Cloud-derived storage gear is coming to the channel in 2104, with open-source software and white-box storage as well as branded appliances from the ODMs that serve Google and Amazon. The feature-price-performance spectrum is liable to be all over the map.

In a nutshell, the tier system is no longer useful. With all this evolution (and a few revolutions thrown in for luck), IT departments are confused about what they should buy, what gear they should keep, and what software is needed to make it all orchestrate well.

We need to class devices by their usage and accept that some will fit in more than one class. The tiering system intrinsically contained a use case message that provided a good guideline in a simpler world. Any new system should flow from that perspective.

The stimulus for this change is unlikely to come from large hard drive or appliance vendors. They’ve demonstrated an understandable reluctance to embrace change. More likely, the major players in the SSD world will drive the story.

It’s important we do this. There’s a sense of confusion in the industry, compounded by the fact that storage has been a backwater for a long time. This confusion inhibits growth and unnecessarily stresses IT professionals.

The still large world of legacy computing and traditional SAN storage is struggling with the fall of the storage tiers. New storage capabilities and SSD performance are rapidly widening the system-level gap between current capabilities and the older gear.

If legacy resists change much longer, outsourcing to the cloud and SaaS when change inevitably arrives will be economically and technically irresistible. At the same time, finding the right path to get to a sustainable environment isn’t made easier by the confusion of options.