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How Many Storage Vendors Should You Have?

Every so often we'll speak with a user looking to consolidate all their storage hardware assets to a single storage system, or one trying to consolidate on a single data protection application. These efforts are well intentioned, but are often difficult to pull off. Embracing a multi-vendor storage strategy and solving the management problems that it creates is probably a better answer.

Why Multiple Vendors?

The main reason that you need multiple storage vendors is that no single vendor can meet all of a data center's needs. The larger the environment gets, the more diverse those needs become. There are applications that need the extreme performance of solid state storage, there are those that need a very consistent level of performance, and there are those that just need capacity. Many vendors have single systems that claim to provide each of these characteristics, but they tend not to excel at all three. Evidence of this is seen by the number of vendors offering separate products in each category to cater to each level of data center and needs within those data centers.

The most important objectives for an IT professional are to solve the problem at hand and to lay some groundwork on solving future problems. This often means having the ability to add to an existing environment instead of replacing it. As we discuss in our article "Cost Effectively Solving Oracle Performance Problems," sometimes the best approach is to provide a performance boost to an existing storage system. This additive approach is generally less expensive, less disruptive, and extends the life of the larger storage investment. This type of solution almost always comes from an alternative vendor who is happy to make what you have work better, rather than replacing the whole storage investment.

Managing Multiple Vendors

There are a variety of ways to manage the multi-vendor environment. Storage virtualization solutions have matured greatly in the last few years, and they are now available in standalone appliances, as well as virtual machines. As we discussed in our article "The Storage Hypervisor," the hypervisor is a great place to deploy storage virtualization. It offloads some of the data services work from the storage controller and provides a natural scale. As hosts are added to the virtualized server environment, a storage virtualization virtual machine is added to each host.

The appliance-based systems have also improved by offering even more data services, as well as storage efficiency techniques like deduplication and compression. These appliances can now tier data not only between different storage media types (e.g., SSD and nearline SAS), but also between different storage systems, (e.g., a capacity-based array to a flash-only array).

There is, of course, the more traditional approach of using centralized software-monitoring tools that provide a single GUI. These are mostly for providing an environmental overview and alerting you that something has gone wrong. For the most part, to fix that wrong requires launching each storage system's individual interface.

From an IT perspective, a multi-vendor storage strategy is simply dealing with reality. No one single storage system can meet the needs of all sizes of data centers, or even the specific needs within a certain sized data center. Again, the vendors themselves have admitted this, since so many of them have multiple products that are barely integrated.

Finally, a multi-vendor storage strategy also allows you to buy the right product at the right time under the constraints of your budget. I have yet to talk to a storage hypervisor or storage virtualization user who has not seen physical storage costs decrease as a result of the initiative.

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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.

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