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Storage Gets Exciting -- Really

We've done our State of Storage Survey for five years now, and one thing we've learned over that time is that storage pros are methodical in their adoption of technology. That's to say they're cautious; you might even say slow moving. After all, virtualization and all of its derivative technologies, Ethernet-based storage protocols and even solid-state drives have been around for a while. Uptake of one or two of those technologies generally increases only a few percentage points in a given year.

But in 2013, our survey (full report to come in February) shows that storage pros moved on all three of those fronts in big ways, and it looks like they'll continue their faster-paced adoption in 2013.

The numbers appear to show that 2012 was a year of upgrades, and often to products from new vendors -- but existing vendors' products weren't necessarily retired, at least not yet. So while the percentage of survey respondents who reported using Hewlett-Packard and IBM systems for Tier 1 and 2 systems stayed flat at 55% and 41%, respectively, reported use of EMC jumped eight points, NetApp jumped 12 points, Sun/Oracle jumped seven points and Dell jumped six.

Most likely as a result of this trend, the 2013 survey revealed a large increase -- 31% -- in IT organizations reporting that they manage 100 TB or more of stored data. We also see more concern about having enough budget and sufficient staffing. This cautious approach of bringing in new systems and technology while keeping the existing stuff isn't without its own pain. Adding vendors implies a short-term lack of expertise that always makes the first years with those vendors challenging.

These new storage systems are largely networked with 10-Gbps Ethernet. Those reporting using 10 GigE for their SANs is up 46%, and those using it for NAS systems is up 29%. Storage architectures are moving toward Ethernet, somewhat at the expense of Fibre Channel but more so through a decrease in use of 1-Gbps Ethernet. A good number of shops are aiming for a single networking technology within their data centers, and that single fabric will most certainly be Ethernet. But Fibre Channel fans shouldn't lose heart. We didn't ask about 16-Gbps Fibre Channel in last year's survey, but we did this year and 10% of respondents reported using the technology.

More interesting is the increased use of storage virtualization, as determined by those who say they're pooling some or all of their storage resources, up 24% from last year. That increase brought with it a significant uptick in other virtualization-related technologies. Thin provisioning use is up 32%. Tier 1 data reduction (deduplication, compression or both) is up 27%. Storage pros are still strapped with the vexing problem of whether and when to delete files containing data they don't own, but at least with these technologies they don't have to set aside large chunks of storage that may never be used.

Finally, there's the movement to the use of solid-state storage. If there ever was an inevitable transition, this is it. Spinning media, much like tape, still has a long life ahead of it, but improvements in the longevity, reliability and performance of solid state mean that, sooner or later, it will be the de facto storage technology. In our survey, 45% more respondents than in the previous-year's survey reported using SSDs within servers. For most shops, the use is in hybrid systems that combine the performance of SSDs with the economy of traditional spinning media.

What storage pros are learning is that simply replacing hard drives with SSDs isn't the way to go. Performance bottlenecks simply move from the drive subsystem to the networking system or elsewhere. Getting the most bang for the buck means reconsidering the storage architecture as a whole, and that transition will take a few more years to make its way from specialized applications to widespread general use.

Storage pros are shaking things up like never before. For a discipline known for its caution, the next few years will be very exciting.