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Storage Applications vs. Storage Systems

The current, predominant configuration for SAN or NAS storage is a dual controller RAID system to which storage system manufacturers add software that allows the storage to do things you really want it to do, like thin provisioning, snapshots, replication and other capabilities. With few exceptions, the intellectual property in these systems is, for the most part, in the software not the hardware. So why can't you just buy the storage as an application and run it on your own hardware? 

Storage applications are nothing new. In the late 90's, companies like FalconStor, DataCore and a host of others, who have now either been bought or closed their doors, provided software that you would load on a server, and it could manage any attached disk. Today, even the large storage vendors like NetApp, IBM and HDS have embraced this concept to a degree. They allow you to integrate other storage into controllers or heads that you have to buy from them.  

With the rise in number of OEM manufacturers of storage and hardware focused array providers, such as Intel, Nexsan, LSI and Xyratex, as well as the exponential increase in performance of a mid-range Intel processor, why not just get the software and build the storage system yourself? Software companies like FalconStor and DataCore are seeing business increase, as are Nexenta, Sun's ZFS, StarWind Software and others. In fact, many of the storage industry leaders bill themselves as software companies not hardware companies. 

With the cost of mid-range servers and the declining costs of hardware-focused storage manufacturers' systems, the build-it-yourself method is very attractive. While you can debate how optimized the storage applications are -- even if they aren't as well matched to the hardware as some of the storage systems manufacturer's codes are  --  all that extra Intel processing can overcome a lot of shortcomings. Finally, if you don't want to build it yourself, storage resellers will build it for you for less than the cost of getting a system from a lead manufacturer. 

What are the storage systems manufacturers going to do? Clearly they are not going to fold up their tents and go home. In the high end of the market, companies like 3PAR, EMC and HDS are investing more in their platforms, moving code to specialized silicon for performance, implementing high speed back end infrastructures, and of course, single point of service. These suppliers' business remains unaffected.

Clustered storage systems like those from Isilon Systems and Scale Computing also tend to lend themselves to getting the hardware and software from a single place. Tight integration and compatibility is critical in these environments, and to an extent, the software and the hardware are more deeply intertwined there. 

Beyond those two cases, if your storage needs are basic midrange or SMB storage and  you don't have the need for high performance scale out storage, exploring a solution that makes storage an application can be very compelling. As always, there is never one perfect solution for all data centers and often not even one perfect solution for a single data center.