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Storage Hardware: Is The End Near?

We have come to expect our storage systems to provide features like snapshots, thin provisioning, cloning and now even automated tiering. These capabilities, or the way they are implemented, are sometimes one of the main reasons you will pick one vendor over another. With the increasing intelligence in the application, operating system, and hypervisor, do we really need our hardware to provide these functions?

Most operating systems and hypervisors now offer thin provisioning, snapshots, and even cloning (writeable snapshots). A few have added the capability to do automated tiering and, as we discussed in our recent article, the ability to add deduplication to operating systems and hypervisors is well within a vendor's grasp.

Today many of these additional capabilities that the operating system and hypervisor vendors are adding take a measurable toll on performance and typically only use them to a certain extent. However, as we discussed in "The VDI Storage Trade Off", there are add-on systems that can integrate into the hypervisor itself that removes the performance bottlenecks and actually may deliver better performance than enterprise storage systems. There also are software storage virtualization products that can add these features to almost any storage system or even a server full of disk capacity as we described in our article "Your First SAN."

The applications themselves are getting smarter. We have to look no further than Exchange 2010 with its replica capability to see that even the application vendors don't want to be tied to the costs of expensive, enterprise-class SANs as a stumbling block to users deploying their software. Applications can now use solid-state disk as cache, they can protect themselves from hard drive failure, and, of course, from server failure. Storage vendors have to now not only compete against each other but the capabilities of the application itself to use direct-attached storage.

What's a hardware guy to do?

The writing is on the wall: The features that really triggered the sale of enterprise storage systems will be available within the operating system, hypervisor, or application in the future. While the need for these capabilities to exist in hardware for performance reasons is viable, that will not be the case forever.

This leaves the ability to share and the ability to configure highly reliable systems that are easy to manage and scale. Sharing can't be done in large part with direct-attached storage and, while the single drive, single mailbox technique that Exchange 2010 is bringing forward is compelling, I think storage systems are going to have a scaling and data protection advantage for a long time to come.

The net is that storage hardware vendors need to focus on creating solutions that are easily shareable and easily managed. All the other advantages may eventually go by the wayside and be replaced by software. This even includes the performance advantage that they now enjoy, as we will discuss in our next entry.

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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.